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Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas

Book Review by Dr. George Weinberg

Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas by Douglas Murray, Talk Miramax Books, 376 pages, cloth, $27.50

As one of millions of fans of Oscar Wilde's work, I found Bosie, by Douglas Murray, a masterpiece on many counts. "Bosie," as Oscar Wilde enthusiasts know, is the name that Wilde and others used for Wilde's young lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Letters from Wilde addressed to Bosie might have helped put Oscar behind bars.

No one would guess that the author of this biography is himself only twenty two. An excellent writer and a thorough researcher, Murray has mastered the skill of letting the facts do the talking, so that I found myself actively plunging forward throughout the book. If the Oscar Wilde trial interests you, or you care about the status of homosexuals in England early in this century, or if you like history or would enjoy a good portrait of a fascinating character, get this book.

Like most of us who would love to follow characters after a compelling play or novel are over, I had often found myself wondering about the players in the Wilde drama. People are frail and when we get to know them well but don't know how they fared after we left them, we worry about them with a parental curiosity (I sometimes find myself concerned especially about certain characters in Twelfth Night, hoping that Sir Toby and Andrew Aguecheeck and Maria are doing okay, and that they lived long lives.)

A great many plays, movies and books have come out about the Oscar Wilde trial (literally three trials of Wilde) and his utter destruction, and like many, I was left wondering what happened to his lover and to some of the lesser figures who swelled the scene and then vanished.

Bosie, the story of what happened to Douglas after the trials, is a remarkable chronicle in two ways: Because a great deal happened to him and because in another sense, he made so little of his life. When he was young, many people considered Bosie the handsomest youth in England, and his pictures, included among many in the book, suggest this. He had a golden Greekish quality. He came from a noble family, prestigious in England for hundreds of years. Yet his father was vindictive, insane and not too bright. Bosie himself, it turned out, was petulant, narcissistic, vindictive, and a superb poet, whose works got into many anthologies.

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Bosie was, as a youth, a strong but hidden activist for the gay cause, but turned into so bizarre a homophobe that his whole life has much to teach us about homophobia, self hate--and hatred in general. Just as some of the biggest anti-Semites are Jews who hate themselves, some of the worst homophobes are themselves homosexual, and some of these, as we know, have committed suicide, killing themselves because they were gay--in a sense committing murder.

After Wilde's death, Bosie became a Catholic, renounced homosexuality publicly, and probably even privately. He married, had a son, who ended up in mental hospital, and tried to put people in jail for homosexuality.

Bosie, as I mentioned, was an excellent poet, though his style was distinctly passé, even in his own lifetime; he wrote much in sonnet form (Petrarchian sonnets), as some did, even while the new poets on the scene, T.S. Eliot and Yeats and others, were introducing twentieth century poetic freedoms. Bosie's most quoted poem, written in the Oscar Wilde days, was a proclamation that homoerotic love has a place. Homoerotic poems have a long history, of course, but this is the first poem that I ever saw devoted not simply to a lover but to homoerotism as a form of love.

Heterosexual and homosexual love meet in a garden. Homosexuality says:

'My name is Love.'
Then straight the first did turn himself to me.
And cried, 'He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am love and I was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'
Then sighing said the other, 'Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name.'

The last line is well known, of course, though not always attributed to Alfred Douglas. One could argue that poems written to same sex lovers are in themselves powerful arguments for free love. But they run the risk of being misinterpreted.

"Everyone talked to a boy the way Shakespeare did in his sonnets. Doesn't mean a thing. Even Michelangelo and Da Vinci talked like that..." "So what if Eleanor Roosevelt wrote that she couldn't wait for a woman's kisses and embraces...It was just a metaphor..."

This poem could conceivably be misread, too. But not without great effort.

The Oscar Wilde interlude, wisely not delved into by the author, occurred when Wilde was forty and Douglas was twenty five. The two had been seen in many bistros and elsewhere holding hands and being otherwise chummy. Douglas's father, the Marquis of Queensberry, was a thoroughly unstable man and a boxing aficionado. The standard boxing rules of today are credited to the Marquis, incorrectly I am told by experts.

In any event, the Marquis was pushed over the edge by reports that his son was being buggered by Wilde. Since libel laws were strict, he could only accuse Wilde of being a sodomite "or pretending to be one." He left a note to Wilde on a salver at his club, making this accusation--spelling sodomite, "somdomite, by the way. Wilde retaliated, suing the man for libel against the advice of many, who anticipated that Queensberry's defense would be to prove what he said. The Marquis did just that, adducing four prostitutes, then called "rent boys," to testify against Wilde.

The case was quickly dropped, they didn't have to go very far. Then the state charged Wilde as a sodomite. Wilde had a chance to leave the country, they had given him one deliberately, but he chose to stay, feeling invulnerable and perhaps spurred on to look good to Douglas, who left for France when the Wilde trial began and wasn't implicated. Wilde did two years hard labor, and left a broken man. During the trial, he had spoken of the love of one man for another in glowing terms, not saying that his experiences were sexual. But he didn't have to. The rent boys gave ample testimony.

Wilde died a few years after leaving jail. His brother and his wife had predeceased him. Wilde's time was spent miserably, self-indulgently, and getting money from whomever he could under any and all pretenses. While in jail he had written De Profundis, an attack on Douglas and on homosexuality, which he described not as a high form of love but as an insidious disease.

Wilde had written that a man's greatest work of art is his own life. Wilde was without question a versatile genius, a fantastic viewer of life, customs and morals, a wizard with words and ideas. Apart from Oliver Goldsmith, also a lost soul in many senses, no one ever wrote a great English novel, play and poem. Wilde's Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Ernest and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, qualify him

But Wilde's life was immoral in every sense: he would lie to his best friends, take money from them under false pretenses, and he would bad mouth those who stood by him. Sheridan, in his School for Scandal, has a character say before leaving the room, "I leave behind a defenseless name and reputation." That's exactly what you did if you had ever spoken to Wilde and then turned your back.

Now back to Bosie's book, which follows Douglas before, during and after the Wilde experience. It's the "after" which most readers would find the far more intriguing part. I mean the word "intriguing" in two senses--the story is intriguing, and Bosie did little else beyond intrigue against people for most of his life. He married Olive, the author thinks a lesbian, they had a child.

Bosie became a devout Catholic, as I mentioned, and turned against everything he had championed with a ferocity that makes fascinating reading. He hated homosexuals, birth control, Jews, and in particular Robert Ross, Wilde's first and most devoted lover, whose ashes were finally interred next to Wilde's. The book is full of accounts of law suits, and Bosie's own imprisonment. Bosie became his father, almost as if he were programmed to become a duplicate.

Douglas used the courts to reinforce his conventionality and make distance from those he considered sinners. During the center of his life, his motto might almost have been "I sue, therefore I am." One final insight from an unpublished paper by Lawrence Abrams on the subject struck me as interesting. Abrams opined that that Douglas's final years, in which he allowed himself to make peace with the memory of Wilde and even with his father, became possible because his sex drive had so diminished. He no longer had to fight his own homosexuality and therefore could relax and to stop suing people. A good point but, we must remember that six months in the penitentiary for libeling Churchill may also have chastened him. The subject itself is prolific, so I'd better stop.

I don't want to upstage this wonderful book, Bosie, which is among other things a chronicle of a case of homophobia that I wish I'd had when I coined the word a long time ago. But read it. You won't be sorry, and I for one am looking forward to reading whatever book the author writes next.
Dr. George Weinberg
Coined the term homophobia. With Diane Rowe, he co-authored a book on Shakespeare titled Will Power. Heterosexually-inclined, Dr. Weinberg is the author of Society and the Healthy Homosexual, the groundbreaking 1971 critique of the then anti-homosexual prejudices of his professional peers. He is also the author of many other works including The Taboo Scarf and Nearer to the Heart's Desire

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