OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
THE TRUTH ABOUT "DE PROFUNDIS"
In 1905 there was given to the world with a great flourish of trumpets a book entitled ''De Profundis” which purported to be a work by Oscar Wilde. To this book Robert Ross supplied the preface. It will be necessary for us to examine this preface very thoroughly. Ross commences by explaining that for a long time curiosity had been expressed about the manuscript of ''De Profundis” ''which was known to be in my possession, the author having mentioned the existence to many other friends.''
Presuming that Wilde mentioned the existence of this MS. to any of his other friends, I very much doubt whether he ever explained to them the nature of its contents. He no more dared do this than he dared have attempted to publish it, for he knew perfectly well that if he had told many other friends, whispers of his vileness and duplicity would have been sure to get round to me, and there might have been an end of my friendship and an end of my gifts.
At our first meeting after his release Wilde told me that he had "a hideous confession to make." He said that while he was in prison he had been told that I was no longer loyal to him and that I had expressed contempt for his sufferings. He said that he knew now that this was not true, but that it had preyed on his mind, and he had allowed it to anger him to such an extent that he had written me a very fierce and abominable letter and had it forwarded by Ross. I told him that I had a recollection of having received a copy of some such letter (not the letter itself) from Ross and with it a covering letter from Ross in which he said how sorry he was to have to send Wilde's letter, but that Wilde was apparently more or less out of his mind in consequence of the treatment he had received in prison, and was disposed to quarrel with everybody, and that he (Ross) hoped that I should take no notice of what he was sending. I threw the copy of Wilde's letter into the fire and I wrote to Ross to tell him to mind his own business, and to point out that if Wilde had anything to say to me he could say it in his own handwriting.
So that when Wilde opened up his ''hideous confession" I naturally thought that he was referring to the letter Ross had sent me, and I said: ''My dear Oscar, I never read more than three or four lines of the wretched thing. I gathered that it was an ill-tempered letter and threw it into the fire. Don't let us talk any more about it. I quite understand how you must have felt, but it is all over now and there is nothing more to be said.''
It struck me, at the moment, as curious that Wilde should be wanting to make confessions as to having written a letter which he knew I had received, but I had no wish to pursue unpleasant matters, and the conversation dropped. From that day forward, though he was continually in my company and continually accepting kindnesses at my hand, he never breathed a single word about unpleasant letters or secret manuscripts or anything of the kind. It has been suggested by people who wish to make out that I had a copy of ''De Profundis" sent to me in Wilde's lifetime that the letter which I received through Ross and burned was, in fact, ''De Profundis," but this cannot be so, for the very simple reason that ''De Profundis" is a fifty-thousand-word manuscript, whereas the letter I burned covered only several sides of ordinary letter paper in Ross's handwriting. I fail to see how Wilde's position is in the least degree improved even if it were granted that I had received a copy of the "De Profundis" manuscript; but, as a fact, I did not receive it. Ross goes on to tell us that Wilde had instructed him to publish ''De Profundis”.
Those instructions, Mr. Ross tells us, were contained in a letter from Wilde written to him, obviously from prison. Part of this letter Mr. Ross has published in ''De Profundis,'' but he omitted the passages which gave him the actual instructions. I should have much liked to have seen these, for they might have thrown some light on Wilde's action in leaving behind him in the hands of others a posthumous libel on a man who had been his friend up to and during his prison period, and to whom he afterwards turned for assistance and refuge.
It was not till ''De Profundis'' was announced to be forthcoming by the press that I ever knew that Wilde had left behind him an unpublished manuscript of any sort or kind. When I learnt that there was a manuscript and that it was to be published under the editorship of Ross I was very much astonished. Wilde had never spoken to me of any manuscript which would be long enough to make a book; neither had Ross, and neither had anybody else. I was so astonished that I went round to see Ross, who at that time kept a picture shop in Ryder Street. I said to him :
"What is all this about an unpublished manuscript by Wilde? There is no such manuscript.'' He said: ''Oh, yes, there is." I said: 'Then why have you not told me of it before? and why did Wilde not tell me of it?" Ross said: ''I wanted to keep it as a surprise.”
This struck me as being rather strange, and I said: 'Wilde was hard up and keen on selling anything that he could get rid of. Why should he not have published it himself?'' Ross replied: ''He didn't do that because the MS. consists of a long letter. It contains a lot of disagreeable writing about you and other people, but I have cut this out, and what is left makes a nice little book."
I said that it seemed a very extraordinary thing that nobody should have heard of this before, but Ross assured me that he would publish nothing that would hurt Wilde's reputation and that the book would do him good, and there the matter ended. When "De Profundis" was published there was not a word to indicate that it had been addressed to me and not to Ross at all, and the opposite deduction is one which the reader of the preface may fairly draw.
For example, Ross quotes Wilde as saying that the privilege of writing to Ross at great length was one for which he was grateful to the Governor of the prison. Moreover, this impression still remains. Holbrooke Jackson, in his book "The Eighteen-Nineties" (published 1913), writes of Wilde: "During his imprisonment he wrote 'De Profundis' in the form of a long letter to his friend Robert Ross."
''De Profundis" was published in 1895, and I never knew till 1912 — seventeen years later, when the Ransome case was toward—that it was really addressed to me and that the unpublished parts were still in existence and amounted to more than half of the whole manuscript. Still less did I dream that the unpublished moiety—as any reader of the reports of the Ransome trial can see for himself—contained gross; libels on myself or that the British Museum authorities had kindly consented to accept it as a present to the nation without so much as consulting any of us. I leave the facts as I have set them forth to the judgment of the public.
The existence of the ''De Profundis" manuscript forces us to one of two alternatives : Wilde, according to Ross, wished it to be published and gave it to Ross with a view to publication, never afterwards changing his mind on the subject or desiring that the manuscript should be destroyed. In that case he has exhibited a perfidy which is without parallel in history, inasmuch as for three years after leaving prison and right up till the time of his death he professed to be my devoted and attached friend and accepted in friendship what I was very pleased to give in friendship.
The other alternative is that, on leaving prison and finding that he had been misinformed as to my attitude toward him, he repented the writing of this manuscript and intended it to be destroyed, but failed to cancel his instructions. While the Ransome case was pending I wrote Ross a letter setting out the facts stated above, namely, that I had never any idea that ''De Profundis" was a letter addressed to me or that it had any connection with the letter which Ross had sent me in 1897. I also informed him of Wilde's solitary reference to the letter, which I have previously referred to.
I expected Ross to give me some reply by way of explanation, but received none. I consider that, in view of the circumstances, he might have taken the opportunity of ridding the memory of his friend of what, in the absence of such an explanation, must be regarded by all fair-minded persons as an act of cowardly and abominable treachery.
As it is, seeing how zealous an adherent of Wilde Ross is, I am forced to the conclusion that Wilde was playing the Judas with me all the time we were together at Naples and all the time that he was lunching and dining and ''meeting his difficulties" at my expense in Paris. Before proceeding to refute charges brought against me at the Ransome trial, based on Wilde's posthumous libel, I should like to enquire whether it can be considered proper, either on literary grounds or on grounds of public policy, that a book like ''De Profundis" should be given to the world at all.
Mr. Ransome tells us that the book is composed of passages from a long letter the complete publication of which would be impossible in this generation. 'The passages were selected and put together," he adds, “by Mr. Robert Ross, with a skill that it is impossible sufficiently to admire."
Quite so. But it can be demonstrated out of the text that Mr. Ross's selectings and puttings together have, in the net result, entirely deceived the public, not only with regard to the nature and intentions of ''De Profundis" as a book, but also with regard to Wilde's own character and his attitude towards his own misfortune. What right has Mr. Ross or any other person, no matter how skilled, to indulge in this kind of literary liberty? Despite what Wilde himself said to the contrary, it is always important that we should know as much as is possible to be known about any man who sets up to teach us, and especially is this so in the case of an author like Wilde, whose whole writings amount really to a sort of personal statement. Mr. Ross recognises this much, because in his version of ''De Profundis" he offers no samples of Wilde the vituperative spitter-out of venom or of Wilde the braggart and vain boaster, such as appear in the reports of the Ransome trial, but shows us simply the Wilde who weeps profusely and swears that he has turned saint.
"And I do this,'' says Ross, in his preface, ''hoping that my efforts will give many readers a different impression of the witty and delightful writer”.
The ''different impression" has obviously resulted. Wilde emerges from the mire a gracious, suffering, forgiving, magnanimous figure. The extracts from Wilde's own manuscript, read and relied on by the counsel for the defendant in the Ransome trial, prove him to have been nothing of the kind, and, for that matter, the direct opposite. On literary grounds alone we are surely entitled to protest against such a dangerous violation of the normal editorial function. If we are to take "De Profundis" for an approved precedent, a literary executor is justified in treating a dead man's inedited manuscripts in such a way that he is made to say only half of what he really did say, and so made to appear the direct opposite of what he really was. On public grounds one is entitled to protest even more strongly. We have, in Wilde, a person of careless and vicious life, whose talents were always carelessly and at times viciously employed. Such a man was almost, in the nature of things, bound to come to a miserable and degraded end.
Wilde ended up in prison for his offences, and if he had really repented and had really written ''De Profundis," as published without the suppressed portion, and lived out the rest of his life in a decent way, it would have been possible and proper for us to forgive and forget a great deal ; but, unless he has maligned himself most madly, he never did repent, and it is certain that ''De Profundis," as published, does not represent his sentiments or his nature. The result has been that a false and specious glamour has been put upon the aim and trend of Wilde's life and writings, and very generally the apologia contained in the bowdlerised ''De Profundis" is regarded as a sufficient ''Apologia pro Vita sua"
Commenting on the reading of the unpublished parts of ''De Profundis" at the Ransome trial, the Outlook said: 'Those who heard its unpublished portions . . . fall from the lips of the learned junior counsel for the defence, or even those who had to be content with such portions their newspapers gave them, had the unusual experience of sharing the privileges reserved for posterity. They have added to their knowledge of the last prose work of Oscar Wilde; indeed, they have gained their first true knowledge of the form in which it left his pen. They know that it begins 'Dear Bosie’ and ends 'Your affectionate friend, Oscar Wilde’ but it is not always either friendly or affectionate. They know that there are parts—about meals and the influenza and the respect that is due to a great artist—'and especially such an artist as I am'—that are not an expression of the mood which gave to the world the well-known parts about Christ.
They have learned, for the first time, that some parts have been taken and that other parts have been left—to the nation. In the parts that have been taken, and strung, like beads, on a new string, to form the book the world knows, they have learned that the 'you' addressed is not general and impersonal, but the friend who, whatever the rights and wrongs of last week, has at least written poetry that is better than Wilde's own, in spite of the mood of scolding superiority in which the letter seems to have begun."
It has been suggested that the article from which this passage is an extract was written by my friend T. W. H. Crosland and inserted in The Outlook through the influence of George Wyndham. Anybody who is acquainted with London journalism knows that Mr. Crosland has had nothing to do with The Outlook since he resigned the Literary Editorship of that journal in 1902; and Mr. Wyndham ceased to have any interest in the paper some months later. The author of the article is, so far as I am aware, entirely unknown to me, and, in any case, it was not written by my desire or inspiration.
I have already referred to certain charges against me, in support of which passages from the unpublished parts of "De Profundis" were put to me at the Ransome trial, and shown how preposterous they are. I had an opportunity, at the time of the Ransome trial, of reading a copy of the manuscript with great care ; and I say advisedly that, in so far as it concerns me, I had great difficulty in finding a single statement which could not be demonstrated to be utterly, deliberately and ridiculously false. If Mr. Robert Ross will remove his embargo I am open to print the whole of such portions of "De Profundis," word for word and line for line, with plain demonstrations of the absolute malice and contempt for the truth that Wilde has exhibited right through the piece.
As it is, at present I am prevented from quoting or even from paraphrasing any portions owing to the legal steps taken by Mr. Ross. But, in order that it may never be suggested that I fear or admit the charges brought against me in the Ransome trial, and to clear myself from them, I propose to deal with the more serious of them (not already dealt with in Chapter VIII) as assertions of fact and not even by way of paraphrase of the precious MS.
I should have preferred to put these charges into Wilde's own words, and so have given my posthumous libeller every opportunity of couching his attack in his own way and with all the master's skill. But Mr. Ross has prevented this by obtaining an injunction against me. I do not think, however, that either he or the law can prevent me from dealing with allegations of fact made against me in cross-examination qua allegations of fact.
I have already referred to the falseness of Wilde's charge that I hampered his work, and that when I was by he was sterile. I had to meet the charge, in particular, that when he was pressed to deliver 'The Ideal Husband" he had to wait till I was away and then got on famously. When I returned, ''all work had to be abandoned." This assertion is wantonly wrong. When Wilde was in working mood he worked and I never attempted to take him away from it. The play was read to me scene by scene and line by line, and so far from my having delayed its completion I materially assisted it. If one were disposed to be flippant and to admit that Wilde gives a correct description of our daily programme at St. James' Place, one might enquire why—if he found it impossible to work in the atmosphere of his own quiet and peaceful household and found it equally impossible to work at St. James' Place because of my interruptions—he never locked the door of St. James' Place, never contrived to be out, and never omitted to send me telegrams of enquiry and letters of pleasant rebuke if I happened to miss calling upon him.
Wilde was too keen an artist to allow anything or anybody to come between him and what he would call a realisable mood. The truth is that he would begin a work with great zeal and fury and apply himself to it and to the contemporaneous consumption of cigarettes and whiskies till he became utterly exhausted. As a rule, he completed what he had begun in a series of spurts and with periods of easy do-nothingness between whiles. On the other hand, there were occasions when he got stuck, and he got stuck over more than one of his plays. This is merely to say that he was like any other artist; to blame me for it is childish or lunatic—whichever you will.
Wilde began ''The Sphinx''—a work of which he was inordinately proud—when he was little more than twenty years of age : he was thirty-eight before he finished it, and then, apparently, he had to call in no less a poet than Robert Harborough Sherard, author of ''Whispers," to help him out with rhymes ending with "ar." Sherard tells us with great pomp and pride that he suggested "nenuphar"—a substantive of Greek origin, which had been worn to death by precious poets before either Wilde or Sherard was born, but the sudden and glorious discovery of which by Sherard appears to have transported them both into the seventh heaven.
It is absolutely untrue that my mother, the Dowager Marchioness of Queensberry, ever informed Wilde at Bracknell that I was “vain,'' or ''wrong about money." My mother has never been in the habit of discussing the characters of those near and dear to her with anybody, much less with comparative strangers. On his own showing, Wilde scarcely knew me at this period, and on the only occasion he was at my mother's house near Bracknell there were a dozen other guests staying in the house, and his conversations with my mother would be of the very slightest, and amount, so far as she was concerned, to the merest civilities when they met at lunch or dinner. My mother is still alive and, whether at Bracknell or anywhere else, she did not say to Wilde what he professes she said.
It is the same with the charge that our residence at Goring, where I was well known, cost him a fabulous sum. If this is so, seeing that we shared expenses of the Goring establishment, Wilde appears to have let me off exceedingly cheaply for my half-share; for I do not recollect that it cost me more than twenty or thirty pounds a month, excluding the rent, of which I never heard, inasmuch as Wilde professed that the house had been lent to him by a well-known member of the Peerage.
If thirteen hundred pounds were spent by Wilde at Goring during those three months, all I can say is that at least twelve hundred must have gone in rent; for we lived very simply there, and there were no restaurants into which one could be lured to a meal which would cost ''a whole sovereign”.
So Goring won't do, any more than the five thousand pounds worth of ortolans and Perrier Jouet. One other small matter and I shall have done with this part of the subject.
I deny emphatically that I gambled and lost at Algiers and expected him to pay my losses. At the time Wilde and I went to Algiers together I had just come into some money, and I took a suite of rooms at the best hotel in the place. Wilde stayed there with me, and I paid the hotel bill myself. There was not, so far as I am aware, a tripot or other gambling place—much less a Casino—in Algiers at that period, so that neither of us could gamble even if we had wished to.
Wilde returned to London before me for business reasons ; but the business was entirely his own and had nothing to do with me, and I lent him fifteen pounds to pay his fare home. By some aberration or other he actually returned me this money, paying a cheque for the amount into my account in London. In all the literature of the subject, that is to say, in all the pass-books, banking accounts, business and private letters, and so forth, that are in existence or ever did exist, this is the sole and only instance of Wilde ever paying a sum of money to me ; whereas it could be demonstrated out of the same documents that I paid a very great many sums to Wilde.
In the safe seclusion of Reading Gaol he sits, tearfully penitent, and remembers that fifteen pounds, which, no doubt, loomed up in his memory like a shot-tower. He catches at it, gleefully, and uses it as a peg on which to hang a false, preposterous, lying story about meeting my gambling debts in a place where there is no gambling. At the back of his mind he knew that nothing of the kind ever occurred, yet the fifteen pound payment might have lent colour to the statement if it came to be investigated after my death. And that was all the colour he had for his pretty statement.
I have no wish to be uncharitable to this man who, doubtless, suffered, and suffered severely. Nobody could read the complete "De Profundis'' without perceiving that imprisonment destroyed Wilde's moral fibre and crushed his spirit to such an extent that he became a sort of Mrs. Gummidge who felt everything ''more than you do.” I am forced to think—and, to be quite frank, I try to think—that Wilde cannot have been mentally responsible when he wrote this stupid and abominable manuscript. That I am not alone in my opinion of what confinement and bitter discipline were doing for him will be evident from the following letter which I received from a close friend of Ross's at the time when Wilde was supposed to be angry with me. The letter is dated from a house which was at that time occupied by Ross and the writer of the letter.
'My Dear Bosie,
"Your letter distresses me, for I can say so little to comfort you and I would do all I can. You will know by this time that I had seen Oscar before I received your letter. I saw him on Saturday, 30th November, the very day you wrote, and I only got your letter to-day, Tuesday. You must not think that I do not know what Oscar's change towards you must be to you, but Robbie will tell you that from the very first I never believed that it was more than a passing delirium of gaol moral fever.
I naturally minimised to you and Robbie, when I wrote, the horrors of the general prison surroundings, but I have seen them, and am confirmed in my belief that no man like Oscar who is subject to them can be considered capable of exercising his ordinary mental or moral faculties. What he says now no more expresses his proper natural feelings than do the ravings of a man in delirium. I am certain that his mind has very much suffered, but I think from what I have heard of him before, and what I have seen of him, that he is better; and I think that he is conscious that he must make efforts to prevent his mind suffering more, because he was so very anxious to get some rather drudging mental work to do, in order to occupy and, in a sort of way, discipline his mind.
In former interviews he spoke of you just as a lunatic or a man in delirium does of the people they love best, but the other day he did not do so; he merely complained of some letter which you had written to him or to the Governor (I suppose of Wandsworth) which he had heard of but was not allowed to see. I told him that I was certain that you would write no more. He has to be talked to as a person very slowly recovering from delirium. I could not have said anything to distress him. Just think, he has only one half-hour in the awful weeks of hideous prison life. You must try to show the love which I know you have for him, by the most difficult of all ways — waiting.”
There may be—and probably is—a good deal to be said for the view herein set forward, and it would be inhuman not to make all necessary allowances. But we are still left face to face with the unchallengeable fact that Wilde was sane enough when he came out of prison; that his health was on the whole improved by his sojourn there; and that for three years he kept up his friendship with me, and lived to a great extent on my bounty; and that he never said a single word about the disgraceful document which Mr. Ross has so generously bestowed upon the nation.
0. Book profile
10. Naples and Paris
17. Wilde's Poetry
19. For Posterity
28. The Smaller Fry