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Douglas Anchor


THE number of writs which I have had from time to time to issue over the Wilde affair is past my count. If I had invoked the law on every occasion upon which I have been libelled over it, I suppose that the fees for writs alone would have run into hundreds of pounds. For some years I allowed people to say whatever they might choose to say about me without lifting a finger against them.

I believed in Wilde, who was my friend : I believed in his genius and I had an exaggerated opinion about the value of some of his writings. It seemed to me that time would set me right; and it seemed to me important, both for Wilde's sake and the sake of letters, that I should avoid, so far as was possible, stirring up the mud which I knew lay at the bottom of his life.

By the time Wilde came out of prison I formed a sort of habit of taking no notice whatever of either his or my detractors. After his death I let everybody who had known him rush into print about him without offering the slightest contribution to the discussion. Sherard produced two books purporting to be biographies of Wilde. Other books on Wilde have been written by various hands ; Mr. Ingleby has written a life, and I believe biographies have been published in America. I can honestly say, however, that I have not troubled even to read any of these works. Though I have quoted from Sherard in the present volume, I have not read either of his books through.

Ingleby's book I have glanced at and Ransome's ''Critical Study" I read through for the first time in July of last year. My opinions as to the importance of Wilde's writings began to change as my reading extended and my mind took hold of serious things. A man's critical judgment is not at its best at twenty-eight, especially in regard to the artistic productions of his intimates. Even when we were together I had told Wilde over and over again that he overrated himself and that he was not by any means the great man he believed himself to be. To give him his due, he agreed with me. Nevertheless, after his death I held his memory as a friend and, if you like, even as a literary figure, in such regard that I never so much as dreamed of saying or writing anything which would be likely to injure him.

We had had our differences. I knew that he had written me one angry letter in prison and I knew that for reasons of their own his intimates hated me; but he had apologised to me for his anger and admitted that it was unrighteous and ill-founded. I did everything that a man could do to succour and help him and make life possible for him after he left prison; and I was unremitting in kindness to him right down to the time of his death. He, for his part, seemed to be most kindly and affectionately disposed towards me and, for aught I knew to the contrary, would gladly have done for me what I gladly did for him if our positions had been reversed.

This thing is certain: that, during the whole of our close intimacy in Naples and Paris, subsequent to his downfall, he never once said or even hinted to me that he had anything to blame me for, or that, whether as regards finance or any other matters, I had treated him otherwise than generously and as one friend should treat another. He was a clever man and, in his way, a singularly astute man, but I never imagined that he was either clever or astute enough to keep up a show of affectionate friendship for a man whom he hated during the years that elapsed between his leaving Berneval and his death.

At the last he drank a great deal more than was good for him, and when alcohol began to have a power over him and make him drunk, the wine was in and the wit was out in Oscar Wilde's case just as in any other man's. If he had cherished resentments against me and had succeeded in hiding them when he was sober, I should have thought he would have given me an inkling of them when he was drunk, but he never did. Yet all the time the manuscript of ''De Profundis'' was in existence, and Mr. Ross held his instructions to publish it.

Now, when I found in a book—which was obviously intended to be the apotheosis of Wilde, but was dedicated to Ross, and which claimed to put forth the major facts of Wilde's life on the authority of Ross as to biographical details—statements to the effect that I had been in some way responsible for his public obloquy, and that I basely deserted him when his money was spent, I cannot see that there was any possible course open to me but to have the matter threshed out in a court of law. I accordingly issued writs upon the whole of the parties who were legally concerned: that is to say, on the author, the publisher, the printers, and a representative firm of distributors. The printers apologised and the publisher withdrew the book from circulation, and they were allowed to drop out of the action. The “Times Book Club" put in a defence on technical grounds, and Ransome, for his part, put in a plea of justification.

That plea could never have been framed without the assistance and co-operation of Ross. I knew perfectly well what it would, in all probability, contain before ever I saw it. It was never really put to the jury. Recourse was had to other measures. Ross was in possession of a few old letters of mine; the British Museum had the unpublished parts of ''De Profundis''; Truth had the letters which I had addressed to Labouchere, and Messrs. Russell—a firm of solicitors of which the Honourable Charles Russell is the principal — produced—I presume under subpoena—the idiot letter from Wilde to myself which my father produced at Wilde's trial at the Old Bailey. Of my letters to Wilde, Ross and Labouchere there is, since they were not in the defendants' possession, no mention whatever in the defendants' affidavit of documents, and consequently I had no warning of them.

Of the "De Profundis" manuscript I was given due notice and, of course, I knew that Wilde's own letter—which is a letter which reflects discredit on Wilde rather than on anybody else—would be sure to turn up. So that my letters to Wilde and Ross and the letters to Truth—the former sixteen years old and the latter eighteen or twenty years old—were sprung on me as I stood in the witness-box. They proved absolutely nothing, but it was natural that they should make prejudice; and I complain, not that they were produced, but that they were produced without my being given an opportunity of perusing them and calling to mind the circumstances in which they were written.

I said in the witness-box what I sincerely felt and feel — namely : that I am ashamed of having written them ; but I will say here and now what I tried to say then, which is that the other side ought to be much more ashamed of having produced them. What the defence really did in effect was to say: ''If you didn't ruin Wilde and desert him because he had no more money to spend on you, you did something else which justifies us in saying anything we like about you.''

In point of fact, this is always what happens where actions for libel are concerned. You libel a man in a most cruel and vicious way, and if he takes an action against you, you go to court and libel him still further. Mr. Ransome got his verdict and, though I would have appealed against it if I had possessed the means, he is fully entitled to it in law. He is entitled to go on saying that I ruined Wilde, or that I lived on Wilde, till he is black in the face if he can get anybody to print and stand the racket of it. But who will believe him? Even with the jury's verdict to give it sanction, the thing is too preposterous for words.

The Ransome affair had made no particular difference to me ; but what has it done for Wilde? Here were these people with two short paragraphs which had nothing to do with and could not possibly help their book in the least. When I started my action against them I did not ask for damages and should have been content with a withdrawal of the paragraphs, and, in the long run, they have had to be withdrawn. If this had been done before the trial I should never have known of the existence of the unpublished parts of ''De Profundis" and the public would never have known of them till 1960.

The present book would not have been written and the Wilde myth would have gone merrily on its way rejoicing, until it was exploded by process of time. So that clearly Wilde profits nothing, but, on the whole, loses disastrously and perhaps prematurely, and his tumble has been brought about by the very persons who profess to be his most devoted and zealous friends. Knowing what they must have known, and particularly knowing that I had not asked for damages, they would have taken good care that no action took place if they had sufficiently valued Wilde. They are fifteen hundred pounds out of pocket, and the radiant picture of Oscar Wilde, which they had been at pains to limn, can be radiant no more.

Even Mr. Justice Darling and Mr. F. E. Smith cannot save it in its pristine beauty. The former was kind enough to explain to a crowded court that Lord Alfred Douglas "might'' have achieved some success in letters if he had put his talents to assiduous use, while the latter said that Lord Alfred Douglas had, in some way which was not explained, outraged every tradition of his class. Mr. Justice Darling forgot that I am still the possessor of a pen far more able than his own, and Mr. F. E. Smith forgot that, unlike himself, I belong to a class which takes no stock in cant and is not to be put down by windy rhetoric; a class, too, which does not look to Mr. Horatio Bottomley for a push into prominence.

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