OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
THE BRITISH MUSEUM AND ''DE PROFUNDIS"
I HAVE already shown that it was not until the Ransome trial was well on the way that I had any idea of the existence of the unpublished parts of ''De Profundis'' or that the whole manuscript had originally been couched in the form of a letter to me. As soon as I heard rumours of these facts I communicated with Mr. Robert Ross, and was informed definitely of them by Messrs. Lewis and Lewis, who, in their letter to me, asserted that ''I must have known" of the existence of the manuscript and that my name was omitted from the published parts out of ''consideration for my feelings."
It is perfectly obvious that there is nothing in the published parts of ''De Profundis" to which I could take exception, nor should I have been in the least degree injured if Mr. Ross had let it be known that the published parts were addressed to me instead of leaving it to be inferred that they had been addressed to him.
It is true that when I had a conversation with him prior to the publication of the book, Ross told me that there were certain references in it which I might not have liked, but he also told me that these had been expunged, and I understood that the book was really a letter addressed to himself. This is as far as my information went up to the time of the action. Before the trial I obtained, by order of the Court, discovery of the unpublished part of “De Profundis.''
I handed the document to Mr. T. W. H. Crosland, who, after perusing it, insisted on reading it to me from the first word to the last. I gave him answers then and there on every point he chose to raise, and I don't mind admitting that his examination of me was a good deal closer and a good deal keener than that of Mr. Campbell, K.C, who cross-examined me on behalf of Ransome. It was not until we got into Court that we knew that Mr. Ross had been so kind as to hand over the unpublished parts of the ''De Profundis" MS. to the authorities of the British Museum as a present to the nation with the condition that they were to remain under seal till 1960, and that the British Museum authorities had been gracious enough to accept the gift.
It is not for me to profess to know upon what principle the British Museum accepts gifts of secret documents. One takes it that somebody at the British Museum must have taken the trouble to read the MS. before it was accepted and sealed up, and that unless the person who perused it was a sheer idiot he must have perceived that it contained much scurrilous and libellous matter not only concerning myself, but concerning the Dowager Marchioness of Queensberry and other members of my family. Yet the MS. was accepted and is now in possession and control of the officials at the British Museum. With these facts before us we are brought face to face with an entirely new and unprecedented range of possibilities.
I flatter myself that when I die any lengthy MS. of mine which I might care to write would have some slight value for persons concerned in the collection of holographs and similar material for museums. It is open to me, therefore, to sit down and write a villainous attack upon any eminent person with whom I may chance to be acquainted and to arrange that my executor shall present it to the British Museum to be treasured for the nation and put to such uses as the British Museum may at any time deem to be fitting. How many manuscripts of this nature may already be lurking on the British Museum's shelves the wise authorities alone know.
Fifty years hence we may wake up to a due knowledge of the “real” characters of most of our most noted public men, written by other eminent public men who have had real or imaginary grievances against them. It may well be that we shall have the pleasure of reading Mr. Lloyd George's inside opinions of Lord Reading and his brethren, written in Mr. Lloyd George's own hand at the National Liberal Club in moments of irritation or depression after the Marconi affair. Possibly Mr. Keir Hardie may have consigned to the same safe and honourable keeping some of his extraordinary opinions about certain dukes and certain judges; and to come into other fields, Mr. Clement K. Shorter may have lodged his private and innermost view of the character and habits of Sir William Robertson Nicoll, Mr. Thomas Hardy, Miss Marie Corelli, and heaven and the British Museum alone know whom else besides. And what a chance is herein opened up for Mr. Frank Harris ! He has known and apparently loved Carlyle, Huxley, Meredith, Matthew Arnold and Oscar Wilde, not to mention Lord Randolph Churchill, Mr. Asquith, Mr. Ben Tillet and other notabilities. He has nothing to do but to write what he likes about them and present the result to the British Museum, for opening and publication in that annus mirabilis 1960.
Of course, it is ridiculous to suppose that any of the persons I have mentioned possess spleen and impudence enough to degrade themselves by doing anything of the kind. But the fact remains that the British Museum authorities are sitting at the receipt of custom, with open and itching palms, and that in Wilde's case they have received, and, not only so, but have refused to disgorge when they were caught at it. I quite admit that, having once accepted on behalf of the nation a relic of any kind, the British Museum is bound to be cautious about parting with it again. This, doubtless, is the refuge behind which the authorities take their stand; but the real point is whether they were ever justified in accepting it at all, and whether, in any case, it was in the public interest that such a manuscript should be accepted.
In law, the paper on which any letter is written belongs to the person to whom it is addressed. The ''De Profundis" manuscript is addressed to me, on the face of it, and I hold that I have a moral if not a legal right to its possession. But leaving this aspect of the question on one side, the British Museum authorities will surely not contend that it is to the interest of anybody in the world, other than those persons who delight in scandal, backbiting and malice, that such a manuscript should be preserved. What possible motive that is worthy can be offered as an excuse by these people? Argue as they will, they must perceive that the manuscript is one which in no conceivable circumstances can be considered to reflect anything but discredit on its author.
When it is published — and it will be out of copyright one day—Oscar Wilde is finished. No reputation, however securely founded, can hope to survive the moral debacle which this manuscript demonstrates to have taken place in the mind of Oscar Wilde. It is said that there must be honour even among thieves. A man may do despicable things and still retain a share of the respect of his fellow-men. Murderers have gone to their doom and have yet compelled some sort of respect from the world in the manner of their doing it. As the published reports of the Ransome trial show, Wilde has whined and shuffled and protested and wept and tried to shift his responsibilities to innocent shoulders ; and the British Museum is to make a public treasure of the record of his infamy and keep it for him until such time as it may be published without unpleasant legal consequences.
For myself I do not care tuppence about the contents of this manuscript. I was anxious that it should be read out word for word in Court at the Ransome trial. If this had been done, and the counsel for the defence had dared to cross-examine me on it in detail, I should have won my case. On the insistence of my counsel a pretence was made of reading it, but not twenty pages had been got through before Mr. Justice Darling intervened, and the reading of the MS. as a whole was discontinued.
Thereafter only such portions were read as were supposed to be greatly to my detriment. Although these passages were read, I was never so much as asked, either by judge or counsel, to say if there was any truth in them. Wilde had written them in mad rage when he was caged up in a squalid gaol, a disgraced and whimpering convict, and, of course, they must be true! The judge himself pointed out that prisoners are apt to slander and unreason, but he did not tell the jury that they must take no notice of what had been read.
Oscar Wilde had written it, Oscar Wilde was a man of genius, and they must form their own conclusions. The veriest tyro in law will tell you that such a document as this is no evidence at all and ought not to have been admitted. Yet it was admitted and parts selected by the defence were allowed to go to the jury. I think that common sense and common justice demanded that we should have had all or none. If the British Museum authorities did not fully appreciate the nature of the manuscript at the time of its acceptance they have had every opportunity of making themselves conversant with its meaning and intention through what took place at the trial. They must surely have recognised that it is capable of being put—and, indeed, has been put—to the basest and most cowardly uses, and that it is, in essence, of absolutely no other use.
For all that, it is still preserved, as though it were a literary gem of the first water instead of something which mankind at large would be quite willing to let die. I am in no position to fight the British Museum for the possession of this abominable curiosity. If it had come into my hands at any time prior to the Ransome trial it would have been simply thrown on the fire, not because I am afraid of it or because any of my family are afraid of it, but because, when all is said, I should have had too much respect for Wilde's memory and too much regard for letters ever to consent to its publication. But it has never been in my hands, and it is now no longer possible for it to be kept secretly. Responsible persons at the British Museum may well be left to their own reflections upon the wisdoms of preserving this mummified libel.
0. Book profile
10. Naples and Paris
17. Wilde's Poetry
19. For Posterity
28. The Smaller Fry