As popular imagination has it, Lord Alfred Douglas, aka Bosie, was a faggy, foppish British poet at the turn of the 20th century who suffered – and largely brought upon himself – a disastrous and highly public fling with literary giant and big queen Oscar Wilde. Bosie came to regret having been a flaming homosexual at a time of harsh Victorian prudery and persecution, and did a dramatic about-face after Wilde’s death, turning Catholic, marrying a woman and fathering a son, denying any unwholesome dalliances with Wilde, and zealously denouncing and/or litigating against anyone associated with Wilde or Wildean vices.
For this betrayal of his kind, other practicing homosexuals never forgave him. Though he enjoyed a modicum of fame during his life, he remained an odd duck in the literary world, a sonnet composer who never adapted his formalist style to the loosening poetics of the era. Bosie left but a minor literary legacy, his personal star forever attached to and outshone by Wilde’s supernova.
To British biographer Douglas Murray, Lord Alfred has been pissed on too much by an ignorant public. The social/political upheaval surrounding Bosie’s life all but guaranteed Bosie’s early, defiantly gay poetry would not receive a fair reading or assessment in his day, nor even his more mature, Catholic poems. Young Murray decided years ago to rectify that sad state of affairs, which has resulted in his captivating biography, Bosie.
“I intended originally to write a book about poetry,” says the sunny 20-year-old author, casually attired in a white linen suit over a pale button-up T-shirt as he sips a beer at the Top of the Mark on Nob Hill, fresh from a live, on-air interview at Berkeley’s KPFA Radio. “That was one of the first things that kick-started me, finding a copy of one of his poems that hadn’t been taken out of the library in 50 years, and realizing they were bloody good. I think some of them are.”
He was a mere 15 at the time, a student at Eton prep school, and little did he know that within five years he would be one of the darlings of the book-publishing world, zipping around the globe, promoting a book published by Tina Brown’s latest enterprise, Talk Miramax Books, an imprint of Hyperion Books.
“I took a year out between Eton and Oxford,” explains Murray, asked how he managed as a student to produce such a well-researched, well-written book. “In England it’s very common. I spent my time teaching. My contemporaries did as well. And in my spare time I wrote the book.”
No doubt marketing decisions factored into Brown’s interest in Murray. He presents at media ops just the sort of sophisticated, sexy young face and engaging personality cameras and tape recorders love to record. As important, and as enticing, is the book’s literary merit, which earns high marks. Murray stubbornly set out to show Bosie wasn’t the complete villain he’s been made out to be, and that he deserves recognition for his literary accomplishments. “I think he should be regarded as a good minor poet,” declares Douglas. To convince skeptics and lure new Bosie fans, Murray traces the intricacies of the relationships among all the key players in the Bosie/Wilde saga with dispassion, thoroughly but clearly and engagingly delineating and speculating on the facts and issues, clearly siding with his principal subject, but never a died-in-the-wool Bosie apologist.
Murray describes Bosie is “an antihero, a tremendous lesson in how not to live your life. . . . The great problem with Bosie, always has been and always was, from the beginning of his life he makes a mess of enemies.”
It may be life imitating art, but Murray himself now attends Magdalen College, Oxford – the very college Bosie attended when he had his first affair with Wilde, when it was still a haven for “schoolboy business.” Clearly Bosie was happiest in life at that time, before homophobia destroyed their love.
The key incident that almost completely unhinged Bosie was Wilde’s apparent betrayal from beyond the grave, where he was untouchable. Wilde’s seeming animus toward Bosie rose up in the form of an infamous, accusatory letter addressed to Bosie, given to one Robbie Ross to deliver, but which Bosie claimed never to have received. When that letter’s contents were read aloud in court, Wilde’s hostile words stabbed him, destroying any traces of his former carefree innocence, turning him into the ogre he became until his autumnal years.
It’s almost a Romeo and Juliet affair where letters are crossing “and don’t arrive in time, absolutely,” Murray agrees. “It’s a terribly tragic story, really two. One tragedy, although it’s the short version in the book, is the tragedy of Oscar Wilde, and the other one is the tragedy of Alfred Douglas. I have in many ways so much more sympathy with Bosie in this.”
Bosie can be admired as a fighter of enormous resolve, committed to his cause, central to which is figuring out, over many years, what exactly transpired in net of his relationship with Wilde, and to seeking redress for many and varied grievous insults he felt he had endured.
When at last in his later years Bosie allowed himself to relax, reflect and find forgiveness for himself and others, he once again regained some semblance of the brave poet who so boldly penned the words, “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” But in truth, that flame had long since expired, the torch taken up by others more true to their natures.
While Murray’s sympathies are with Bosie, his scholarship allows readers to make informed judgments. Admirers of the sonnet will, indeed, find much to admire in Bosie. He wasn’t half bad. Readers who find no mystery in a gay man going straight, on the other hand, will find no problem with Murray’s failing to cast a sufficiently critical eye on Bosie’s apparent transformation. Murray seems reluctant to criticize.
Given the repressive social atmosphere of his time, it’s not surprising Bosie proclaimed himself straight and allied himself with the Church. He had to survive. He was tired of insults, jails, rumors, and his status as social outcast. He wanted to be embraced, and for that he turned to his own aristocratic class for solace and comfort. He got but a modicum of it. One thing seems certain: had gay liberation occurred on his watch, you can bet Bosie would have jumped right in, conversion be damned. After all, the best times of his life were as a happy pervert. Bosie once wrote to Wilde from Biskra, North Africa, says Murray, “saying that he’d had a new lover and that they had sex once or twice a day, and that he was so young that the milk of his mother still hadn’t been wiped from his mouth. This boy was only I think 13; Bosie was 23.”