OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
FIFTEEN YEARS OF PERSECUTION
I DO not think it is an exaggeration to say that from the day of Oscar Wilde's sentence in 1887 down to the Ransome trial in 1913 not a single week had passed over my head without some unpleasantness or other arising in consequence of my friendship with Oscar Wilde. Even before Wilde was sent to prison the trouble began. There was talk and gossip almost from the commencement of our acquaintanceship. This was largely set afoot by envious people. Wilde's friends could not brook that we should be so constantly together, and that I should—to use their own phrase — ''monopolise" him.
In point of fact, I had no desire to monopolise him. It was simply impossible to shake him off. If I left him for a day he would seek me out and want to know where I had been and why I had not asked him to accompany me. If I went abroad he would follow me and either entreat me to return or sit down solemnly and wait my time. So continually were we together that our friendship became matter for public comment and was referred to in the newspapers.
I do not say that I disliked all this, though it was certainly embarrassing and even annoying at times. In a sense, perhaps, I was rather flattered. I have always been fond of companionship, and Wilde was undoubtedly an entertaining companion when he liked. Besides which he was famous in a way, and it is not always unpleasant to go about with famous people, particularly when they happen to be very civil to one. It is a fact that Wilde could not bear me out of his sight. If we happened to be staying together and I went away for ten minutes without telling him where I was going, he would work himself up into a state of nervous apprehension and rouse a whole hotel with his enquiries. I remember that when we were at a hotel in Algiers, I went out to make a purchase without mentioning to Wilde that I was going. On my return, half an hour later, I was met in the hall by a scared-looking concierge, who said: ''Monsieur, you are back ! Voire papa has been demanding to know where you were, with great noise, for the last hour!" Wilde happened to be descending the staircase at this precise moment and overheard what the man had said.
The expression ''voire papa'' simply drove him to fury. He was always vain of his "youthful appearance'' (though, as a matter of fact, he looked much older than his age), and he jumped to the conclusion that he was beginning to look old. He could not see that his anxious queries as to my whereabouts had set the hotel people thinking that he must stand in a parental relationship to the object of his solicitude. For myself, I was vastly amused and, for months after, if I wished to make Wilde fearfully angry, I had only to say ''voire papa”.
I may, perhaps, explain here that from the very beginning I always treated Wilde in the way I would treat any other friend of mine, that is to say, though I believed him to be a great man, I never had any awe of him, and I never flattered him. Not only so, but at times I made a great deal of fun of him, and there were occasions when he didn't relish it. For example, he had been talking to me and to other people at great length about Milton. Somebody in a paper had pointed out that certain of his sonnets had a Miltonic echo about them. He admitted that this was so, but said that what the critic called an echo was really an achievement, and that he had wilfully set himself to write sonnets like Milton's, which should be as good as Milton's.
For several days his conversation turned in the same direction, and in the end I began to grow a little weary of the Milton-Wilde amalgamation, and told him that it was quite easy to write Miltonic sonnets, and that lots of people could do it besides Oscar Wilde. On leaving him that evening I wrote and posted to him the following sonnet, which, I need hardly say, was "writ sarcastic''.
Oscar ! what though no brazen trumpet-call
Of Fame hath called thee to the foremost van
Of life's array, though not from man to man
Thy name is bandied, though thy life seem small,
Ignoble in men's eyes ; the Lord of all,
Who reads the heart and with his fearful fan
Purges his floor, knows thy true talisman—
A humble soul too near the ground to fall.
Therefore, repine not if thy lot obscure
Seeks quiet ways and walks not with the crowd:
A kindly heart is more than laurel crown;
A virtuous life builds thrones that will endure
More surely than the Kingdoms of the proud
And Thrift shall stand when Luxury falls down.
Wilde professed to take this ''undergraduate effusion" seriously, and pronounced it to be ''not bad, for an amateur." But we heard no more about Miltonic sonnets. I mention these things, which are typical, so that the reader may be spared the conclusion that my friendship with Wilde was a smooth and treacly affair ; for it was nothing of the kind. Indeed, we had many a tiff and many a disagreement, and I wrote no end of skits and letters to him, some of them not over civil ; and that he remembered them and that they hurt him much more keenly than I had intended is shown by his references to 'loathsome" and "brutal'' letters received from me. Anything that displeased Wilde was loathsome, brutal, callous, coarse, and so forth. If I wrote and said:
''My dear Oscar,
"I am afraid that I shall not be able to come round to lunch to-day as I am feeling a bit off colour,”
I could count on getting a reply in some such terms as:
"I have received your callous note. If you are ill, surely you can say so without using coarse and vulgar expressions.”
I took precious little notice of these missives and, when we met the next day, neither of us would refer to them.
As I have said, people gossipped about our friendship and exhibited a certain amount of jealousy of me; but I was not then, and never have been, disposed to allow third parties to interfere in my friendships. I have shown what happened when my own father attempted to make differences between us.
The moment Wilde was sentenced things were made intolerable for me. Lying tales as to my indifference to his fate reached Wilde, and he was told that I was about to publish letters of his to his damage and my own monetary profit. The only letters of Wilde's I ever proposed to publish, in my life, were letters which contained sentiments that were to his credit, and even these I withdrew the moment I heard that he was supposed not to wish them printed. Not only was every effort made to embitter and estrange Wilde against me while he was in prison, but I was being continually assailed by impudent rogues who professed to have information and documents which it would be worth my while to buy.
To these people I paid neither the smallest heed nor the smallest of monies. They never had a farthing from me, nor will they ever get one. I was threatened with "exposure'' by pretty well all the crawling vermin of London and Paris for months after the trial. I knew there was nothing to expose, so that I was not particularly anxious; but seeing, as I had seen, what venom and villainy were capable of doing when they got fairly to work, I do not profess that these threats were pleasant reading of a morning at breakfast.
Furthermore, my family were assailed in much the same way and, though they never allowed themselves to be victimised, they were not entirely delighted with the constant current of menace which came their way.
In 1902 I married. It was a runaway match, which neither myself nor my wife have ever repented. At once, however, the dastardly attentions of the blackmailers, letter-sellers and information mongers were directed to Lady Alfred. We lived abroad for a considerable time and, though the threats had been bad enough while we were away, they assumed a double fury when we came to England. They have continued with greater or less frequency ever since. The people who wanted money to keep quiet have fallen off unappeased long ago. But the kind and gentle souls who imagined that Lady Alfred Douglas would be pleased to hear ''something dreadful" about her husband on an anonymous postcard are still with us and crop up from time to time as the spirit moves them.
When I took over the editorship of The Academy, in 1907, the fun became fast and furious. We could not review a book adversely in the paper without being made the object of anonymous threats and abuse with reference to Wilde, and what was going to be done to us if we didn't look out. Persons on papers at Oxford and Cambridge wrote paragraphs about the Editor of The Academy containing veiled suggestions as to the discreditable character of his former relations with Wilde, till we were compelled to take legal proceedings ; then they fell on their knees and wept bitterly and spoke of their dying fathers and apologised humbly and paid our costs.
I sent my friend Crosland down to see the Dons of one of our Universities who were responsible for a certain publication, and he sat solemnly with these learned and reverend signors, in the cloistered seclusion of College, while they solemnly settled the terms of an apology and tried to make the costs pounds instead of guineas by promising to dismiss their editor. From time to time, too, outsiders took a hand at the game. It was through the tender offices of these people that I had steady reminders of the existence of mysterious letters which were being held by one of them, and which were to be produced for my destruction when this gentleman might deem the occasion to have arisen.
0. Book profile
10. Naples and Paris
17. Wilde's Poetry
19. For Posterity
28. The Smaller Fry