In the latest of his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley considers Oscar Wilde’s lover, the spoilt brat that was Lord Alfred Douglas
27 June, 2019 — By Neil Titley
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893
IN the hotly contested title for the most renowned spoiled brat in history, Oscar Wilde’s famous boyfriend Lord Alfred Douglas has a strong claim, owing to his extraordinary antics in and out of the courtrooms of London for over 25 years.
He has been portrayed on the cinema screen more times than many far more estimable figures, and by actors ranging from the 1960s John Neville and John Fraser, to the 1990s Jude Law, and most recently by Colin Morgan in Rupert Everett’s 2018 movie The Happy Prince.
Usually known by his childhood nickname of “Bosie” Douglas (1870-1944), his first legal entanglement was also the best known. A handsome young bisexual aristocrat, he had become the lover of the great Irish playwright Wilde much to the rage of Bosie’s already intemperate father, the Marquis of Queensberry. After Queensberry left an insulting card at Wilde’s club, Bosie urged
Oscar to sue the Marquis for libel. A hesitant Oscar agreed, remarking that if they won the case they would have to be received into the Catholic Church. Bosie replied that if they lost the case they wouldn’t be received anywhere else.
So it transpired when in three separate trials, first Wilde lost his case, then was arrested and finally imprisoned for homosexuality.
Briefly reunited after the two-year sentence ended, the couple lived for a while in Italy then split under financial pressure.
However, it was after Wilde’s death in 1900 that Bosie’s exploits in the field of litigation really blossomed. He was drawn to the libel courts like a gambler to the betting shop. From 1909 till 1923, he was involved in 19 separate court actions.
Some of them stemmed from the collapse of his marriage to Olive Custance. Initially they had been drawn to each other by their mutual interest in poetry, and by the fact they had both been lovers of the promiscuous lesbian Natalie Barney (who apparently made a special dispensation for Bosie). Rejecting Natalie’s suggestion that they co-habit as a threesome, they eloped amid a storm of social, even royal, disapproval. The politician George Wyndham was more circumspect, commenting dryly: “Let’s face it – anything short of murder in the Douglas family is a source of congratulation”.
Bosie as drawn by David McGowan
After several years of marital discord while living at 26 Church Row, Hampstead, Bosie and Olive’s domestic life crumbled into a plethora of court injunctions, libel actions and alternate kidnappings of Raymond, the luckless child of their union.
Bosie subjected Olive’s father Colonel Custance and his friends to a campaign of invective. As a result, Bosie was refused entrance to the Duke of Richmond’s box at the Goodwood races.
The impeccably lineaged Bosie answered the Duke’s snub by letter: “I do not possess the prestige enjoyed by your Grace of being descended from the bastard son of a French whore.”
Bosie became known as not so much a pillar, more a mineshaft of society.
By 1910, in contrast to his earlier behaviour, he became virulently homophobic and indulged in a vendetta against Wilde’s great friend Robert Ross that ended inevitably in a series of libel cases.
In the notorious 1918 “Black Book” trial, Bosie used his role as witness to launch a vicious attack on Wilde himself, claiming that Oscar was “the greatest force for evil in Europe for the past 350 years”, that he had “a shallow and feeble mind”, and that he “repeatedly split his infinitives”.
Politically Douglas edited his magazines “as a diehard Conservative”. He grew increasingly anti-semitic, arguing illogically that Jewish conspiracies were responsible for both Capitalism and Bolshevism; also that Jewish socialist assassins had blown up Lord Kitchener while aboard a British battleship in 1916.
It was the (then) left-wing figure of Winston Churchill that roused his special ire. In 1923, he suggested that during the First World War Churchill had deliberately delayed news of the Battle of Jutland so that his Jewish financier friends could manipulate the New York Stock Exchange to their (and his) benefit. Churchill sued for criminal libel and as a result Bosie was sentenced to six months in Wormwood Scrubs prison.
Unlike Wilde, he appears to have benefited from the experience – jail proved to have a therapeutic effect and calmed him down.
During his last 20 years, he abandoned his legal adventures in favour of poetry. This did not curb his abrasive tongue though.
After a minor tiff with WB Yeats, he claimed that he himself was the superior bard: “Yeats is a very minor poet and TS Eliot and WH Auden are simply not poets at all.”
At the end of his life and in a rare moment of intuition he mused on the whole Wilde imbroglio: “Did my father really love me all the time and did he only do as Oscar said – and killed the thing he loved. Didn’t we all three, Wilde, my father and myself do it, more or less?”
Bosie Douglas died in 1944. His last act was to place a bet on a horse. The horse lost.
• Adapted from Neil Titley’s book The Oscar Wilde World of Gossip. For more details go to www.wildetheatre.co.uk