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OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF

LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
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Douglas Anchor
CHAPTER VIII

HARD LABOUR AND AFTER


TO say that I distressed by the sentence of two years' imprisonment with hard labour, imposed upon Wilde by a Judge who seemed to be absolutely without mercy, is to put a mild term upon my condition of anguish. Wilde and his supporters never ceased to suggest that the whole thing was my fault. They never blamed him for what he had done, but went about calling my father opprobrious names and asserting that I had been Wilde's ruin. It pleased them to have a scapegoat upon whom to shift the moral responsibilities of this big fat man and, with the help of a foolish letter or two which I had written at moments of great stress, they shifted them to some purpose. I have no desire to be mealy-mouthed about the suggestions which have been made, and I will say right out what impression it is that these people have tried to create from the time that Wilde went to prison.


They have suggested that I, Alfred Bruce Douglas, was a partner in the vices of which Wilde was charged and convicted. There has been more or less established the legend that it was I who took him from the path of rectitude and introduced him to the kennels of foulness; and the impression has been created that I led a debauched life with him prior to his imprisonment and that, when he came out and was willing to mend his ways and be reconciled to his wife, it was I who seduced him and dragged him back to his old villainies.


I observe that Mr. Ransome has the following note to the edition of his critical study which has lately been published at a shilling: “The publication of this book in 1912 was the subject of a libel action which was brought against me in the King's Bench Division of the High Court of Justice, and was heard before Mr. Justice Darling and a Special Jury on four days in April, 1913. In that action a verdict was given in my favour. In bringing out this new edition I have considered the question of reprinting the book in its original form, as I have a perfect right to do; but as I do not consider that the passages complained of are essential to the critical purpose of my book, I have decided, in order to spare the feelings of those who might be pained by the further publication of those passages, to omit them from this edition.”


Mr. Ransome's desire to spare people's feelings by omitting from his book what is not true is wonderfully creditable to him ; but the fact remains that he asserted in his first edition that Wilde owed some, at least, of the circumstances of his public disgrace to me, while the exquisite Mr. Sherard goes further and embellishes his ''authoritative'' life with the following passage :


''He was then living in Naples. The circumstances under which he had been obliged to leave Berneval and return to the least desirable companionship that the world of men offered to his choice are summed up in the following sentence by the author of 'Twenty Years in Paris' : 'The time came, however, when, being without money, repulsed, desolate, he could no longer resist entreaties which offered to him companionship in the place of utter loneliness, friendship in the place of hostility, homage in the place of insult and, in the place of impending destitution, a luxurious and elegant hospitality.'”


It is well known that it was I who offered him a sanctuary at Naples when his money had run out and he was reduced to a paltry allowance of two pounds nineteen and sixpence a week; and I submit that the sentence italicised in the above-quoted passage is intended to mean—and can only mean — one thing; while Ransome's assertion is capable of the worst interpretation.


And now we come to the inner secret of the whole of the abominable business. When Wilde went to prison I was in France, by his own request. I wrote to him the moment I heard of the sentence, and there can be no doubt whatever that, up to this point, we were good friends and that he counted me his chiefest and dearest friend. I set to work immediately to do what I could for him in the way of trying to get his sentence reduced, and trying to obtain for him special privileges in prison. In pursuance of my promise and my natural desire to stick to him through thick and thin, I even went the length of writing to certain newspapers with a view to showing that what he had done would not have been considered so very terrible by many eminent people ; that his offence was no offence at all in France, and that his sentence was altogether out of proportion to his crime when one came to consider the amount of suffering a sentence of two years' hard labour would entail upon a man of his nature and temperament.


In addition to engaging myself in these efforts on Wilde's behalf, I was kept continually busy repelling all sorts of stupid attacks on myself. Wilde's conviction and the curiosity and scandal aroused by what transpired at the trial seems to have driven the whole of Paris into a state of madness for the time being. Statements of the most ridiculous kind about Wilde and myself were published broadcast—articles were printed which purported to be written by me and were signed in my name, though I had never so much as seen them; and one paper went the length of printing a number of gallant letters which I was alleged to have addressed to a certain well-known demi-mondaine— a lady, by the way, to whom I had never written or spoken in my life.


I spent a great deal of time and temper in endeavouring to cope with these matters : I challenged various people to duels and I took actions at law against various newspapers. But I soon found that it was next door to impossible to keep track of my traducers and that I might easily have spent the rest of my life in litigation without obtaining redress.


About this time I wrote for the Mercure de France an article about Wilde which might have done him a certain amount of good in the literary sense. Sherard heard in some way that this article had been written ; he mentioned it to Wilde in prison and, on the strength of what Wilde said, Sherard wrote me a letter stating that Wilde desired that the article should not appear. I gave Sherard his immediate and proper answer and, as it was nothing to me whether the article appeared or not, unless Wilde wished it to appear, I arranged with the Mercure de France that it should not be printed. In the meantime, I decided to go to England and to visit Wilde in prison, in order that we might talk generally of his affairs. I wrote informing Robert Ross of my intention and, in reply, he told me that he had just come from Wilde and that, as his correspondence and visitors were strictly limited, he desired that I should neither write to him nor visit him.


I said that I thought such a request ought to have come to me directly from Wilde — either by word of mouth or by letter—but Ross told me that prisoners were allowed to write only a limited number of letters in the year, and to see only a limited number of visitors and that he had already written as many letters as he was entitled to write and would be unable either to receive letters or visitors for some time to come. I was very much upset on receiving this news, and I had some thought of trying to obtain an interview with Wilde through influence which I possessed ; but I was told that it would be bad for Wilde if I did so, and I accordingly determined to follow out his wishes and to wait until he could write or send to me.


I subsequently went to Naples and occupied myself with literary pursuits, getting together a volume of poetry which I proposed to publish and dedicate to Wilde. Now it is quite clear that during the latter part of his imprisonment Wilde laboured under the impression that my silence and my failure to visit him were due to carelessness, indifference and apathy on my part. Either he did not know, or pretended not to know, of the precise intimations given to me not to visit or write to him. As he did not hear from me, he concluded that I had forsaken him. This filled him with a violent anger, and he set to work and wrote ''De Profundis.'' His rage and hate apparently knew no limits, and Sherard published a letter of Mrs. Wilde's, in which she states that she had seen her husband in prison and that he had said that if he could get hold of ------------, meaning myself, he would kill him.

And all this time I was thinking hourly of the man who had been my friend and counting the days to the time of his release. I had steady reports of him from Ross, but never a word or a hint that he was angry with me or that I had done anything to offend him, until he had nearly completed his sentence. The only indication of the sort that came my way was in the matter of the dedication of my first volume of poems. Ross wrote to say that Wilde felt that it would be better if I did not dedicate the book to him; and, as he wished it, I refrained and issued the book without any dedication at all.


Of Wilde in prison we have had many touching and woeful pictures. Sherard has a passage about it which, in the circumstances, is worth quoting: ''In Wandsworth Prison first and then in Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde's mental development reached a point of transcendency to which never in the world of men he could have hoped to attain. There had been forced upon him the recluse life which had raised many men in the world's history towards the stars, but which, perhaps, never before demonstrated its reforming and enhancing powers in a manner more magnificent, more orbicular, more triumphant. In the old days he had tried to imitate Balzac in his mode of life; but Society and Pleasure had ever knocked at the door of his cell, nor had he the strength of will great enough to resist their allurements. Now there were iron bars between him and the wasteful pleasures of the world: a claustration as strict, if less severe, than that which Balzac imposed upon himself, held him fast, and he had the time to think. He had the time to think, and with a brain which at last had recovered its splendid normal power.


“The prison regime, the enforced temperance in food, the enforced abstinence from all narcotic drugs and drink, the regular hours, the periodical exercise—the simple life, in one word—had restored him the splendid heritage that he had received from nature.


“What the real Oscar Wilde was, and of what he was capable, was now to be made patent. In 'De Profundis' he laid his soul bare, and the impartial are to judge from that book of the man's new powers as a thinker and as a literary artist. His friends will ask no more than that, reserving to themselves the high delight of taking a holy joy in the lofty virtues which that book reveals, the kindness, the patience, the resignation, the forgiveness of sins so splendid that one may almost believe that in his ardent meditations on Christ he was able to bring the bodily presence of the God who taught these things into his cell, and to learn from the divine lips themselves what is the true secret of human happiness. Critics abroad have said : 'There is too much about Christ in ''De Profundis," ' overlooking the fact that the book is, from the first page to the last, inspired by Christ—that no man who had not found Christ could have written that book, nor lived as the man who wrote it did live. In England, one heard it said that it is absurd to believe that an agnostic, a sensualist would turn to religion, and the blasphemous statement has been made that this book is, in its way, no more sincere than the dying confessions of many prison cells, the greasy cant that officious chaplains win from fawning prisoners. One has heard the word HYPOCRISY pronounced."


This is very precious writing and quite typical of the ecstatic frame of mind of the average Wilde enthusiast. Unlike Mr. Ransome, however, Mr. Sherard does not appear to have had the advantage of knowing that the published ''De Profundis,'' which aroused him to such a pitch of pietistic fervour, is merely a collection of elegant extracts.


A perusal of the extracts from the complete ''De Profundis" published in reports of the Ransome trial would have convinced him that this saint-like inhabitant of Wandsworth and Reading gaols was indeed a hypocrite of the most hypocritical dye, and that the ''De Profundis" was indeed ''no more sincere than the dying confessions of many prison cells, the greasy cant that officious chaplains wring from fawning prisoners.'' Nay, it was worse than this, for the design of the canting deceiver of prison chaplains is not usually to hurt other people, whereas Wilde's design was utterly to destroy the reputation and good name of a man who had befriended him; and to do this in such a way that he might still continue to obtain kindness and money from the object of his hatred and leave him absolutely without a word of defence in his lifetime.


I say that Oscar Wilde conceived this horrible and unheard-of plot in his unreasoning rage at what he conceived to be my attitude towards him, and I say that Mr. Robert Ross, who professed great friendship for me both then and until long after Wilde's death, did nothing to make Wilde's plot ineffective, or even to warn me of it. On the contrary, he presented the unpublished parts of ''De Profundis" to the authorities at the British Museum on the understanding that it was to remain sealed up only until the year 1960.

However, I shall deal with the whole question of ''De Profundis" in a separate chapter. My main point here is to show plainly what has been brought to my charge, and to show how the people who bring these charges stultify themselves. Nobody who reads Mr. Ransome's book before (out of the kindness of his heart) he removed his aspersions on me, could doubt for a moment that he wished to convey the impression that I had a bad influence upon Wilde and that it was this bad influence that brought Wilde to grief and prevented him from rehabilitating himself after his release. Yet it is this same Mr. Ransome—who tells his readers in his preface that he is indebted to Mr. Ross for verifications of his biographical facts—who gives us the following precise details as to ''the intensification of Wilde's personality'' when he became a habitual devotee of the vice for which he was imprisoned : ''He had first experimented in that vice'' says Ransome, ''in 1886; his experiments became a habit in 1889."


Well, in 1886 I was a boy, fifteen years of age, at Winchester School, and I had never so much as heard of Oscar Wilde; whereas in 1889 I was eighteen years of age and in the south of France with a tutor, and was not to meet Wilde—whose name was still unknown to me—till nearly three years later. So that by the time we did meet he had already found his way to the lowest moral depths without my juvenile assistance. It is to be noted further that both Ross and Sherard knew Wilde long before I did; and, according to their own showing, were his constant and faithful companions until I arrived on the scene. Both of them swear that they never heard him use an objectionable phrase or an obscene remark, and that they had no inkling of his aberration. Whereas I, a callow undergraduate from Oxford, with so simple an outlook upon life that, in spite of my classical training, I never clearly understood the nature of Wilde's viciousness till the time of the trials, am alleged to have known everything and to have been the prime mover in events which had occurred years before I was on the scene at all.


Then again, let us take the accounts of what happened immediately after Wilde came out of prison. During the time of his incarceration some sympathiser or other—a lady, by the way—put up a thousand pounds for the use of Wilde, so that he might have money by him while he was in prison and a sufficient sum to face the world with when he came out. There can be no doubt whatever that Wilde had at least eight hundred pounds at his command on the day he left prison. Ransome tells us that he ''immediately crossed the Channel for Dieppe, where he stayed for some days and drove about with Mr. Robert Ross and Mr. Reginald Turner, examining the surrounding villages, most of which seemed uninhabitable." At the end of a week he took rooms in the inn at the little hamlet of Berneval. Then he took a chalet for the season and talked about building a house. "He asked for his pictures and Japanese gold-paper that should provide a fitting background for lithographs by Rothenstein and Shannon.''


Sherard tells us that at Berneval his resources melted away in his hands. ''He spent money with the recklessness of sailors on shore and prisoners free of gaol. ... In inviting friends to visit him at Berneval, he used to ask those who were married to bring their wives with them. . . . He showed himself, to those who had the privilege of seeing him during the weeks he spent in Berneval, a gentleman, a hero, and a Christian !”


Doubtless! The italics are mine and I make no comment. I was in Paris and, later, in Aix-les-Bains with my mother during the brief, bright, brotherly Berneval weeks, when Oscar Wilde was getting rid of the last of his substance and throwing out of the window, as it were, the money which should have been used reasonably to maintain him until he could cast about for work. I heard from Wilde that he was all right and going well and strong, and that he had ''dear so-and-so" and ''dear so-and-so" to visit him.


Several letters passed between us, and he kept on saying that he would come to see me. Ultimately, when I had decided to take a villa at Naples, it was arranged that Wilde should visit me there. Just before I started for Naples, I got a long letter, in which he explained that he had spent his last shilling, that all his friends were gone, and that he hadn't even sufficient money to pay his fare to Naples. I telegraphed a sufficient sum to cover his expenses and he joined me there at the Royal Hotel. Soon after I moved into the Villa Giudice at Posilippo, taking Wilde with me. In less than three months at Berneval he had got through eight hundred pounds, and he came to me penniless, excepting for what I had myself given him.

It is suggested that his coming to Naples was the result of frantic appeals and persuasions on my part. In point of fact, he came because he had nowhere else to go and because nobody else would have him. He required neither ''luring" nor "tempting''—which he certainly would not have had from me, in any case—and he was very glad to find a refuge in my establishment.


There is just one other point, and I shall have done with this very unpleasant part of my subject. The people who suggest that in some unexplained manner I was the means of separating Wilde from his wife forget that Wilde left prison in May, 1897, and did not join me at Naples until the end of August of the same year. We have seen that immediately on his release from prison he went to Dieppe and was driving about with Ross and Turner. Why did they not take him to his wife? They were with him for weeks at Berneval, and so was Sherard. Why was the reconciliation—which Sherard professes to have laboured like Hercules to arrange—never brought about? Of course, the answer is Alfred Douglas stood between them. The fact is, that Alfred Douglas did nothing of the sort.


What actually happened was this: Wilde never dreamed of rejoining Mrs. Wilde or becoming reconciled to her while his money lasted. When his money was spent he wrote to Ross and asked if more could not be raised. Ross replied that nothing more could be done. Wilde then wrote to his wife to enquire if she would receive him as her husband. Wilde asserted that she sent him a reply full of hums and haws and imposed a number of what he described as absurd conditions. The letter drove him into a fury and, I believe, he never wrote again to her in his life, or she to him.


The plain fact is — as the unpublished part of ''De Profundis'' shows — that Wilde had never forgiven me for what he believed to be my neglect of him while he was in prison ; and that if the supplies of money had held out, he would never have come near me. But when he found that his admirers and supporters in London were not disposed to keep him in the lap of luxury at Berneval, and that they considered his miserable pittance of under three pounds a week sufficient for him to live upon, his thoughts turned towards Naples, where he knew no such views of economy were likely to prevail. He came to me on false pretences, because he knew that ''De Profundis'' had not been destroyed and, from that time forward to the day of his death, I had the honour and pleasure of supporting him.