OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
OUR MUTUAL FRIENDS
ACCORDING to the Ransome book—the biographical details in which, its author admits, have been checked by Mr. Robert Ross—Oscar Wilde was the son of William Wilde, "knighted in 1864, a celebrated oculist and aurist, a man of great intellectuality and uncertain temper, a runner after girls, with a lusty enjoyment of life, and a delight in falling stars and thunderstorms”.
This is an ingenious way of presenting a decidedly dubious and unpleasing character to an awestricken world. Wilde's father was certainly a knight; but heaven alone knows who his grandfather was. It is also to be noted that while Sir William Wilde may have died ''a celebrated oculist and aurist," he began life as an apothecary, and for years kept a chemist's shop in an obscure part of Dublin. The ''runner after girls" admission on the part of Messrs. Ransome and Ross is also very touching, seeing that William Wilde had once been prosecuted for insulting a lady patient and that everybody knows the story of Wilde's father and the witty veterinary surgeon who rallied him on the subject with one of the sharpest bits of sarcasm that ever fell from a man's mouth.
It is perhaps necessary for me to say here that I have never in my life laid any great stress upon the advantages of birth. If a man's manners and disposition are all right, I am not greatly concerned to know that his father drove pigs or got locked up for stealing spoons. At the same time, I have never been able to repress feelings of amused contempt for that numerous body of persons who, having no ancestry or forbears to speak of, make a point of proclaiming themselves to be persons of family, and invent all manner of legends to support their supposed exalted birth.
In the case of Wilde, it is due to him to say that he kept his parentage and extraction fairly in the background so far as I was concerned. He admitted that he belonged to the Irish middle classes and prided himself on having risen to academic honour, not with the help of money, but by sheer force of intellect. This was in the early days of our acquaintance. Ultimately, when he had managed to get out of the rut of bohemianism and to find his way into respectable society, he began to conceive himself in the light of a very great social figure, and it was easy for him to suppose that he was a born member of the aristocracy and that all his people belonged to what Burke, I believe, calls 'The titled landed and official classes."
I used to smile at these pretensions and joke with him about them ; and he would admit that he was foolish. But the fact remains that to the end of his life he kept up the legend of his high birth and connections, and was eager always to pass himself off as a great gentleman. His biographers have taken up the wondrous tale and, without saying so in as many words, they lead the polite world of Wilde worshippers to believe that their saint was what the young lady called "a gentleman in his own right."
The Wildes "were people of consideration in Dublin," says the zealous Mr. Ransome: "his school-fellows did not have to ask Wilde who his father was." Well, possibly they didn't—for very different reasons than those Mr. Ransome would have us conjure up. Down to the time of my first meeting Wilde, he had never had any real footing in society and, though he fought for it desperately during the period of our friendship, I doubt if he ever really got it.
He was too obviously the tuft-hunter and the snob ever to be liked by the people for whose acquaintance he sighed. I never could see why a man of his talents and mode of life should have been so desperately anxious to be ''hail fellow well met" with some of the dullest and silliest people in the world; but there can be no doubt that he dearly loved a lord and would put up with a great deal of pain and inconvenience on the mere chance of a casual word or two with a duchess.
When our acquaintance began he knew nobody, and, though his name was in the papers and his picture turned up from time to time in Punch, you never saw him at the places where he would have given his soul to be. He told me that at Magdalen he had managed to get on terms with an unmarried duke, but before this beam of sunshine had shone upon him for a year or two, the duke incontinently married and the duchess intervened and put an end to the intimacy.
Wilde's own set of friends and acquaintances struck one as being a peculiar assemblage; but he assured me that they were great and charming people and that they were all on the high road to eminence and fame ; and, being young and unversed in the world's ways, I took him at his word and set down my incapacity to appreciate his immediate entourage to my own dullness and lack of perspicacity.
The first stars in the firmament of charming fellows and world-compelling geniuses brought to me by Wilde were Mr. Robert Ross and Mr.Reggie Turner. According to the allegations brought against me at the Ransome trial, when Wilde entertained these gentlemen at dinner he did it in Soho and with the help of a shilling bottle of Medoc; whereas when I, Lord Alfred Douglas, was his guest, it was always at Willis's rooms and to the accompaniment of specially imported pates from Strasbourg and priceless champagnes.
In point of fact, all four of us drank a good many humble whiskies and sodas at the Cafe Royal and dined and lunched at the same place without any great effusions of money on anybody's part. Wilde was a doughty and assiduous trencherman. I would have backed him to eat the head off a brewer's drayman three times a day, and his capacity for whisky and soda knew no bounds. The marvel of it was that he never became really drunk, though from four o'clock in the afternoon till three in the morning he was never really sober. The more he drank the more he talked, and without whisky he could neither talk nor write.
After Messrs. Ross and Turner, Wilde brought along the late Ernest Dowson, who, for some reason or other, seemed scared out of his wits; Mr. Max Beerbohm, who giggled prettily at everything either Wilde or I said; and Mr. Frank Harris, who wore the same costly furs and roared in the same sucking-dove way as still continues to delight his troops of friends. They were a merry and, I am afraid, a rather careless company. They talked art, poetry and politics ; none of them seemed to have much to do, though I believe all of them were fairly busy men and, on the whole, they were pleasant enough people to meet.
Gradually, however, the acquaintance between myself and Wilde began to strengthen and become more intimate. I took him to my mother's place near Ascot and introduced him to a good many people whom he considered to be important. He met my cousin, George Wyndham, who, I believe, asked him down afterwards to Clouds, and, at his very special request, I introduced him to my brother, Viscount Drumlanrig, at that time a Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria. No two men could have less in common than Drumlanrig and Wilde. On one hand you had a soldier and a sportsman, with perhaps a bit of the courtier thrown in; on the other hand you had the overdressed Bohemian, with his hair nicely parted and very anxious to be friendly and charming. My brother was amused and, though they did not meet more than three times, it was years before Wilde ceased to talk pompously of "my friend, Lord Drumlanrig, Lord-in-Waiting to Her Majesty.'' I also introduced him to my grandfather, Mr. Alfred Montgomery, who took a violent and invincible dislike to him and declined to meet him again.
In addition to the people I have mentioned, Wilde always had on hand a sort of job line of weird and wonderful acquaintances whose names were for ever on his lips and whose possessions—intellectual and otherwise—were supposed to be fabulous. He would come a few minutes late for lunch and beg to be excused for unpunctuality. ''The fact of the matter is," he would say, 'I have spent a most delightful morning with my dear friend, Mr. Balsam Bassy—a charming fellow with a face like a Michel Angelo drawing and a mind like Benvenuto Cellini. I would have brought him in to lunch—he is dying to make your acquaintance—but he has to go down to his uncle's place in Devonshire and couldn't miss the two-fifty on any account."
There would follow a long and highly elaborate statement of Mr. Balsam Bassy's many gifts, graces and accomplishments, his wonderful powers of conversation, the exquisite mots he perpetrated, and the charming poetry that he could write if he would only take the trouble to live his own life instead of frivolling it away in the highest circles. Wilde had, to my knowledge, at least half a dozen ''Balsam Bassys" going at one time and, though I only saw one of them in the flesh, I believe they were real persons, and that Wilde believed all he had invented about them. The solitary ''Balsam Bassy” he produced on an occasion when he could not help himself, as the man sailed right into us at supper, turned out to be a very mild and inoffensive gentleman who possessed an allowance of two hundred and fifty pounds a year from his uncle, a brewer, but with no more talent—let alone genius—than a box of matches. When I observed to Wilde that this particular Mr. Balsam Bassy did not seem quite to come up to expectations, he became very angry and said that the fact that Mr. Balsam Bassy was his friend was a sufficient passport for him to any society. I said that I thought it was, and there the matter dropped.
The large number of persons of eminence whom Wilde knew in a casual way would, of course, make a long list, but of his friends and intimates—the people who, so to say, gyrated immediately around him—I have given a full account. It should be added that Wilde knew Beardsley, whom he was disposed to patronise, and Mr. George Bernard Shaw, who was then a writer on the Star. Of Shaw he had a high opinion and prophesied for him a future in a walk of life far other than the one in which he has succeeded. Probably if he had never known Shaw he would never have written the ''Soul of Man." While Shaw's socialism was a very much redder and more blatant affair in those days than it is now, it attracted Wilde because it was odd and Shaw was Irish.
Though a mild Liberal by pretension, Wilde was always a rebel in his heart. “Down with everything that's up and up with everything that's down" was his intellectual motto. If he had not met Shaw he would probably have kept his views about the social order of things to himself, Shaw helped him to a species of socialism which looks very revolutionary but which is really designed to benefit the rich rather than the poor. Like pretty well everything else that Wilde wrote, ''The Soul of Man under Socialism" fails entirely when you come to look into it. It is neither fish, flesh, fowl nor good red herring, and its main argument—namely, that human beings will never be happy till they have got rid of altruism—is, of course, the obvious reverse of the truth.
It may be that the account I have given of Wilde's circle will come with a shock of disappointment to those who have been accustomed to the Ross-Ransome-Sherard versions as to his mode of life. The absence of distinguished names is certainly conspicuous. But as I am writing the truth and not a fairy story, I am compelled to stick to the actual facts, which are that Wilde, during all the time I knew him, was not on terms of anything like intimacy with any of the distinguished people of his day.
He was continually talking of his various eminent contemporaries as if he were on terms of friendship with them; he constantly referred to Edward Burne-Jones, to William Morris, to Ruskin, to Meredith, to Tennyson, Swinburne, Browning and the rest; and he referred to them always as if he had at one time been most friendly with them. Whether this were or were not the case I have no means of settling authoritatively : I can only speak of the period of his life during which I knew him and was continually in his society—namely, from the year 1892 to the time of his death—and I say positively that during the whole of that time he never had the slightest intercourse with any of the persons mentioned.
I believe Wilde had at one time a slight acquaintance with Burne-Jones ; but on two occasions when I myself met the latter at Clouds, the country house of my uncle, the late Mr. Percy Wyndham, I never heard him mention Wilde's name. I believe he knew Ruskin at Oxford, but only in the way in which any undergraduate could know him if he wished to do so. Browning he had met once or twice, and the same applies to Meredith. I do not believe that he ever saw or, at any rate, spoke either to Tennyson or Swinburne. Yet to hear him talk of all these people one would have supposed that he was a regular member of their circle. When I was with Wilde, before his downfall and imprisonment I accepted all he told me as to his friendship with the intellectual giants of his time as gospel truth, and it was not till long afterwards that it struck me as curious that we never came across any of these celebrities; that Wilde was never able to get one of them to come to his house, and never by any chance went to see them at theirs.
A good example of Wilde's pushfulness in this line of pretended intimacy with celebrated people is furnished by the terms of his dedication of one of his plays : "To the dear memory of Robert, Earl of Lytton.'' I have it on the authority of Mr. Neville Lytton, the younger son of the late Lord Lytton, that his father scarcely knew Wilde, and had only met him on one or two occasions, and that he might or might not have been flattered by Wilde's dedication.
The same applies to his supposed French acquaintance. According to Wilde's own account, he knew everybody in France who was worth knowing, but, as a fact, he had only the very slightest knowledge of a few of them, derived from meeting them once or twice at luncheon or dinner-parties at the time he wrote his play ''Salome”. This question is settled by the articles which have appeared on the subject in France by M. Henri de Regnier and the Vicomte d'Humieres.
After he left prison, of course nobody knew him, but at the very height of his fame and success the facts were as I have stated. The same applies to social as opposed to literary and artistic lights. When I was twenty-three years of age I was elected to an institution called the Crabbet Club, which had been founded by my cousin, Mr. Wilfrid Blunt. The club met once a year at Mr. Wilfrid Blunt's country house, Crabbet Park, for the purpose of playing lawn-tennis and reading poems composed by the members of the club for a prize. Among the members of the club were George Curzon—now Lord Curzon of Kedlestone—George Wyndham, George Leveson-Gower—then Comptroller of the Queen's Household: the ''Trinity of Georges," as some one called them in a prize poem ; Lord Houghton, now Lord Crewe, Mr. Harry Cust, Mr. Godfrey Webb, Mr. Mark Napier, the late Lord Cairns, Mr. "Lulu" Harcourt and a lot more.
Mr. Blunt had made Oscar Wilde a member of this club, and Wilde attended one meeting. It was the custom that any new member should be proposed in a speech at dinner on the first night of the meeting and opposed by some one else. Wilde was opposed by George Curzon, who attacked him in a brilliant, humorous, witty but deadly speech in such a very scathing way that he never could be induced to go to another meeting of the Club. As an undoubted member of this club he certainly could claim to know the other members, and he actually passed one Saturday to Monday at Crabbet in their company. He never forgot it, and never forgot to refer to them by their Christian names ever afterwards ; but none of them ever came to Wilde's house or asked him to his, with the solitary exception of George Wyndham, under circumstances which I have already detailed.
On the only occasion on which I attended a meeting of the Crabbet Club I was proposed by George Wyndham and opposed in a friendly way by Hubert Howard, who was afterwards killed at the battle of Omdurman. The Crabbet Club was only a club in name. There was no subscription and no entrance fee, and admittance to it was simply by invitation of Mr. Blunt, who used the annual occasion of the meeting of the club as a pretext for a charming and most lavish hospitality. I was actually the last member to join it, and the year I joined was the last year of its existence.
One of the rules of the club was that Prime Ministers, Bishops, and Viceroys were not eligible for membership, and that any member found guilty of attaining such positions should be at once expelled. Nothing was said about convicts, but when two of the members (Lord Curzon and Lord Houghton) became Viceroys, and one (Oscar Wilde) was sent to prison, Mr. Blunt came to the conclusion that the Crabbet Club had better be wound up; and it lives now only as a glorious memory and by virtue of a privately printed volume of prize and other poems, mostly of a satirical nature, which would make the fortune of a dealer in rare books if he could get hold of a copy.
I may be excused for mentioning with pride that I won the lawn-tennis tournament of my year, and divided the honours of the Prize Poem with the late Mr. Godfrey Webb, known as ''Webber'' to his numerous friends. To be strictly accurate, Mr. Godfrey Webb was declared the laureate of the year, and invested with the laurel wreath, while a special prize was awarded to me for my poem. It was a beautifully bound edition of Surrey's and Wyatt's sonnets, and I regret to say that I left it behind me at Naples, along with a great many other valuable and interesting books, in the charge of Oscar Wilde when I handed over my villa to him. All these books Wilde sold or lost soon after I left Naples.
The prize for the Lawn Tennis Tournament I still have in my possession. It is a handsome silver cup of the Georgian period, and is inscribed as follows:
''In Youth and Crabbed Age"
0. Book profile
10. Naples and Paris
17. Wilde's Poetry
19. For Posterity
28. The Smaller Fry