OSCAR WILDE AND MYSELF
LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS
A CHALLENGE TO MR. ROSS
I DO not know what Mr. Robert Ross's legal rights as Wilde's literary executor were until the year 1906, when his position was officially confirmed. During the last years of his life Wilde certainly looked to me to do all that might be necessary to be done in regard to his literary affairs after his death. Ross knew this, and other people knew it. Both Wilde and I, however, had been accustomed to look upon him as a business man, and I quite admit that when he came to me after the funeral and asked me what should be done with Wilde's papers, I told him to act as he thought fit. The first occasion upon which Ross used the title of literary executor was in Paris after the funeral. Somebody in an English paper had suggested that Wilde had been buried without ceremony and that none of his friends had thought it worth while to attend the funeral.
I considered that this was an improper statement, and a long telegram was written and sent to the paper in question, the Daily Express, with a view to its correction. The question arose as to whether I should sign it or whether somebody else should sign it, and in the end we decided that the signature should be Ross's. After Ross had put his name to the telegram he said to me : "It will carry more weight if I were to put 'Literary executor to Oscar Wilde' under my name." I saw no objection to this at the time, and Ross added the words, and the telegram was despatched so signed.
So far as I am aware, that is the only mandate Ross ever had from anybody. I do not doubt that his position has been confirmed and made legal since by the Receiver of Wilde's estate and by Wilde's sons. Neither do I doubt that Ross has rendered valuable services to the estate and administered it justly and well. I think that he has done many things which are scarcely in Wilde's interest, however, and of which Wilde would have disapproved ; such, for example, as his publication of the version of the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol," curtailed ''for the benefit of reciters and their audiences," and his dedication of "Intentions" to a woman whom Wilde scarcely knew, in his own name rather than Wilde's. But these are minor matters, and there is no need to labour them.
The challenge I have to issue to Mr. Ross has to do with the question of "De Profundis."
It is admitted by all parties concerned that this manuscript was addressed to me. A portion of the work has already been published, under Mr. Ross's sanction. The other half he has presented to the nation through the British Museum. So that it is evident that Mr. Ross feels that the whole manuscript should be preserved. Sufficient of the contents of the second or unpublished part has been made public in the Law Courts and in the press to make it quite obvious that the manuscript relates chiefly to me, and relates to me in a very bitter, malicious and libellous way. It is consequently a document in which at least two living persons are very seriously concerned.
Neither Mr. Ross nor any other person dare print or publish the thing as it stands, because of its libellous character, and they know quite well that, apart from any action I might take, the Dowager Marchioness of Queensberry would be absolutely sure to take action against them if the manuscript were published. Mr. Ross therefore stores this libel at the British Museum till 1960, when, in the course of human events, my mother will have passed away and I, too, shall be dead.
At this happy juncture the discretion of the British Museum authorities is to come into play. As a matter of fact, however, the manuscript will be out of copyright by 1960 and, unless the British Museum destroy it meanwhile—which, by the way, they would not be within their legal rights in doing —there is nothing to hinder publication, inasmuch as it is open knowledge that copies exist and are in other hands than those of the British Museum. Now I think it will be commonly admitted that a person who is attacked possesses de facto the right to reply ; furthermore, it is the duty of a person who knows that he has been accused, as I have been accused, to defend and clear himself, if he can.
Therefore it is that I conceive it to be my duty thoroughly to sift and examine the charges which Oscar Wilde has brought against me, and to rebut them and give proof that they are false and unsubstantial. It is impossible that this can be done completely and satisfactorily unless I have from Mr. Ross, who, rightly or wrongly, considers himself the legal owner of the copyright, permission to print very lengthy portions of the manuscript now in the hands of the British Museum. In view of the subtle way in which the manuscript is written, it would not be sufficient for my purpose to make extracts here and there and deal with them singly.
The only proper method, in the circumstances, would be to print the unpublished ''De Profundis" in extenso, with my running comment, either beneath it or on the opposite pages. Mr. Ross is acquainted with the whole contents of this manuscript, and he contends that he is the owner of the copyright. I challenge him to give his permission for the manuscript to be used in the manner I have indicated. My proposition is a perfectly fair and square one. I will publish the whole manuscript, word for word and line for line, without omitting or curtailing anything, and over it I will publish my reply, and the public at large shall be left to judge between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.
Mr. Ross's acquiescence in this proposal cannot hurt him in the least. Nobody has anything to gain out of the manuscript, inasmuch as Mr. Ross dare not publish it himself, or get anybody else to publish it, in my lifetime or the lifetime of my mother. He knows that it is a libel on both of us, and the least he can do if he is a fair-minded man is to give me an opportunity of dealing openly and fully with the accusations involved. If he refuses to do this, I take it that the public will draw their own conclusions as to the truth or falsity of these accusations.
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10. Naples and Paris
17. Wilde's Poetry
19. For Posterity
28. The Smaller Fry