Douglas Murray’s first book – published when the author was just 19 and still an undergraduate at Oxford – sets out to chronicle the life of Lord Alfred Douglas, the much maligned and little understood muse of Oscar Wilde. It is Murray’s intention to demonstrate that Douglas was not the petulant, shallow youth of popular perception; it is only reasonable to suggest that this endeavour produces mixed results. Whereas Murray’s study of Douglas’s youth is revelatory – dispensing, for example, with the outdated idea that Douglas entirely abandoned Wilde in his time of need – some of his arguments are less successful. This reviewer remains unconvinced as to Douglas’s own literary merit; and it would take a tremendously skilful apologist – a part Murray is too canny to play – to convince the fair-minded reader that Douglas’s final years were much more than tragicomic in outcome.
The book itself is written in a thoroughly engaging style, though evidence of the writer’s inexperience occasionally comes to the fore. Despite that, however, Murray does possess one of the most appealing traits for a biographer to exhibit: a genuine empathy for and understanding of his subject. There is a great sensitivity here, a tremendous sense of fellow-feeling; and it is communicated authentically and in the course of a thoroughly-sourced and well-constructed narrative. Murray is always lucid and engaging, even when detailing some of the sadder and bleaker elements of his subject’s life. It is a testament to his skill that I read the first 40 pages in a busy departure lounge of a bustling German airport without once looking up.
Murray’s subject did not have an easy start to life. Despite being born with a title and the appearances of plenty, it is a small wonder that Douglas managed to survive his turbulent upbringing – his father, an unpleasant man from a family full of them, was always distant and sometimes cruel – and even to show promise in youth; he founded and edited a student magazine at Winchester, and though Murray puts it a little too kindly when he states that a rather pedestrian contribution demonstrates Douglas’s ‘embryonic … anecdotal ability’, there is some promise to be seen in such activities. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I must add that I myself edited and re-founded a magazine of sorts while at school; I am likely, therefore, to hold any who attempt and succeed at such a task in artificially high regard.) Interestingly enough, Douglas’s early verse contributions to the Pentagram were not terribly promising; they were flippant and comic in tone, and none were reprinted in his later collections; he later wrote that ‘none of it was good enough to survive’.
(At this point it is practically required that the reviewer mention the precocity of author, too, who wrote this book in his gap year between school and university, and who saw it published while he was still studying in the city of dreaming spires.)
After Douglas’s own Oxford education (or what passed for education amid his many non-academic pursuits), the biographer comes – as he must – to the event for which his subject is best known – namely, his involvement with Oscar Wilde. Much has been written about this before, and not all of it has been sympathetic or motivated by the evenhandedness latter-day chroniclers can employ.
Murray creates an interesting insight into their relationship, which, while strong and passionate and genuine, seems to have been built upon a situation of mutual, non-romantic benefit. As Murray correctly points out, Douglas – who was, after all, a youth of uncommon beauty – likely did not find Wilde attractive (at least in the conventional sense).
It was under the tutelage of Wilde that Douglas’s poetry began to flourish and take shape, however. It was for Wilde that Douglas wrote “Two Loves”, one of his most consequential compositions; it contains a phrase so powerful as to resonate through the history of Wilde’s trial, imprisonment and eventual death: ‘I am the love that dare not speak its name’. In that elegant encapsulation Douglas’s nascent poetic talent is abundantly clear; but as so often in his life, talent was no safeguard from the influences of others – or the ruinous aspects of his own nature which served to undermine any promise he initially exhibited.
Murray does provide a necessary antidote to the promise of downfall which hangs over any narrative of Douglas’s life. His volume showcases examples of genuine wit – and not all of them originate from the pen of Oscar Wilde. Douglas himself showcased a ‘wicked sense of humour’ in cards with strategically placed blank spaces which he had made up while at Oxford. Thus
Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas presents his compliments to … and regrets that he will be unable to … in consequence of …
Would be rendered as
Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas presents his compliments to Professor Smith and regrets that he will be unable to show up his essay on the Evolution of the Moral Idea in consequence of not having prepared one.
But these anecdotes, while they do add much-needed colour to the visage of Douglas, must soon give way to the main event: Wilde’s trial, downfall and imprisonment – and his eventual breakup with Douglas. Murray skilfully up-ends some received wisdom in his treatment of this climactic moment; far from running away and sulking, it seems that Douglas was eager to enter the witness box, perhaps hoping that he could, as Murray charmingly puts it, ‘save the day’.
It must be remembered that one of those most culpable for the fact that Wilde ended up on trail at all was the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas’s own father. That this supposed guardian of public morality was also an adulterer and a drunk did not trouble the tabloid press; Douglas accused him – with justified venom – of ‘posing as a moralist’. (In one of history’s ironies, this epigram closely resembles the form of words Queensbury used to kick the legal leviathan off in the first place: he accused Wilde of ‘posing as a Sodomite’, an epithet he inscribed on a visitor’s card at his target’s club.)
Much of the work itself chronicles Douglas’s life post-Wilde. This is, after all, of biographical necessity; the subject survived until 1945, outliving Wilde by nearly half a century. At first glance, what followed does not seem much of a life. It is a tale of decline, loneliness and vituperation; Douglas appears to have lost his purpose, his joie de vivre.
There is a great deal of evidence to support this hypothesis. For one thing, Douglas suffers a downfall of his one, one which is comparable to anything suffered by Wilde. Descending into a career which was more litigious than poetic, he embarked upon a staggering number of legal challenges; many of them were directed at his perceived enemies, Robbie Ross chief among them. Perhaps he satisfied his own ache to take the stand in defence of Wilde through later court appearances; in any case it appears that he relished the opportunity to take or be taken to court, even – and maybe especially – when his presence was demanded on the basis of deeply frivolous matters or absurd justifications.
At the same time, Douglas continued writing; and with the help of numerous benefactors, he again tried his hand at editing. This endeavour reached its nadir when he established a magazine – Plain English – which revelled in petty nationalism and published conspiricist and anti-Semitic nonsense. Douglas himself acquired a jail term after alleging that Winston Churchill lied about the battle of Jutland in concert with a cabal of Jewish financiers, all of whom stood to gain in pecuniary terms in the event of a British defeat.
This squalid episode gave Douglas a similar experience to Wilde; he too served a stretch in jail – but his prison term, as Murray illustrates, is not as nobly borne. Douglas, however, having repudiated Wilde in a fit of hitherto unknown conservatism, did not welcome to parallels history had drawn between his former lover and his current situation. Though he did take the opportunity to write a reply to Wilde’s masterful De Profundis (not coincidentally entitled In Excelsis), it was phrased mainly in a spirit conducive to Douglas’s broader rejection of all that Wilde represented in his early life.
Douglas’s later years were not all meanness and moral squalor, however; and Murray does a fine job in recapturing some positivity from declining years which could be painted in markedly greyer tones. Douglas formed an unlikely friendship with George Bernard Shaw, apparently patched things up with Churchill, and even repudiating some of his repudiation of Wilde. Perhaps most pleasingly, he even took up a small circle of budding poets, much as Wilde had done in his ascendency. Money was tight and circumstances were a world away from the whirligig surrounding Wilde and the Café Royal. But Douglas did, as Murray elucidates, manage to recreate some of the promise of his golden youth. And perhaps there is some redemption to be found there, after all.