H. Montgomery Hyde, doyen of Oscar Wilde scholars, has turned in his new biography to the best known of Wilde's liaisons. He now takes on a man who, but for the notoriety of this connection and the enduring legend with which it saddled him from his 20s onward, might have come to merit separate study as a minor poet and man of letters. As it is, the link with Wilde means that a good deal of familiar ground--much of it originally explored by Hyde himself--has to be traversed again, but the story remains a striking and poignant one.
Lord Alfred Douglas, known to his family as "Bosie," came of a "mad, bad line" of Scottish noblemen and was younger son of the Marquess of Queensberry after whom the rules of boxing are named. He was a 21-year-old Oxford student when first introduced to Oscar Wilde in 1891. Improvident, unruly, and full of literary ambition, the devastatingly handsome youth was particularly tempting to Wilde, a man who could "resist everything except temptation." Both had had other homosexual attachments; neither was disposed to be discreet. It was inevitable, given Wilde's prominence and the malignant attacks of Bosie's father, that the affair would end in the courts, and the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde are part of literary history.
Their affair had been a quarrelsome one, and the wayward, moody and irresponsible Bosie laid himself open to accusations of having sponged off and deserted the broken and exiled Wilde after his release from jail. Such charges were eventually refuted, but they were to dog Lord Alfred Douglas' career and reputation for the rest of his life. He died in 1945, and it is Hyde's achievement to have set the rest of his career, after that brief but fatal friendship, in its proper perspective.
By 1902, he had put behind him the homosexual phase of his youth. He married a poetical young woman, who had been attracted by the feminine side of Bosie's literary and social character. As he hardened into a very different personality, she became less enchanted, and they separated after a decade, Bosie remaining his estranged wife's pensioner for much of his life. There were rows over the custody of their only son, and litigious disputes all too readily recalling Lord Queensberry's excesses were to be common from then on.
Douglas squabbled with colleagues as editor of various short-lived literary magazines, and dabbled briefly in politics, for which an attack on Winston Churchill in the 1920s landed him with six months' imprisonment on a criminal libel charge. References in current literature to his association with Wilde provided frequent opportunities for his skillfully combative disposition. Wiser though it may have been not to keep reviving interest in the Wilde scandal, Douglas could not resist a challenge that so appealed to his ancestral yearning for revenge.
In spite of these repetitious lawsuits, in spite of a bitterness scarcely mitigated by the rather sanctimonious strain of Roman Catholicism to which he had converted, and in spite of a rapid loss of good looks that reflected his change of character, he maintained his literary output. Apart from the memoirs and journalism of his later years, he produced many sonnets, working in a disciplined but restricting medium which belied the irascible temperament too often seen in the courts. Classification as a "minor poet" aroused his anger, but even this recognition must have been gratifying in his sad and impoverished old age.
One of Hyde's great skills is that of turning courtroom exchanges into fluent dialogue, interspersing comments on lawyers and witnesses with the brevity of an experienced tennis commentator broadcasting between sets. His edition of "The Trials of Oscar Wilde" (1948) provide the standard text of some sparkling interchanges that are central to Robert Reilly's long first novel, "The God of Mirrors," which goes over Wilde's homosexual career in fictional form against a detailed documentary background. London and Paris are fully portrayed, with a fair degree of authenticity (though references to "brownstones" in Russell Square, and to pound notes long before the changeover from golden sovereigns, jar on an English ear). The glamour of the stage, the sleaziness of the brothels, and the poignancy of prison life are all quite well captured. There is a telling contrast between the rich but cloying 'Nineties atmosphere, with Wilde and Douglas feasting on ortolans, and the piteous spectacle of the exiled playwright in a seedy French hotel, dying, as he had lived, "beyond his means."
Here and throughout the novel, the text is alleviated by direct quotations and allusions to Wilde's own sayings. Robert Reilly has in his 400 pages attempted the monumental, but in spite of the welcome injection of Wilde's better mots, he achieves only the sentimental. For a better sense of Oscar Wilde, one should still go directly to his own writings--his plays are the most readable and rewarding of dramatic texts--and perhaps above all to his excellent and revealing letters.