A fateful destiny: Uncanny happenings and anecdotes: this portrait of Oscar Wilde and his troubled friends is a decadent delight, says Christopher Josiffe
Comprising five essays, each of which highlights esoteric aspects of Oscar Wilde’s fateful relationship with “Bosie”, aka Lord Alfred Douglas, this book, while slim, includes many surprising details new to this reviewer, despite some familiarity with Wilde’s triumphs and travails.
Constance Wilde’s membership of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, alongside Yeats, Machen and the ubiquitous Crowley, is well-known. Less so, perhaps, is the idea that Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray included some of the Order’s ritual secrets, passed on to her husband by Constance. These were not to be shared among the profane on “pain of being paralysed without visible weapon”. Constance later became seriously ill with a spinal condition causing gradual paralysis. Both Oscar and Constance consulted society fortune-teller Mrs Robinson; she once told him: “I see a very brilliant life for you up to a certain point. Then I see a wall. Beyond the wall I see nothing.”
Aubrey Beardsley, Decadent artist par excellence, refused to have any of Wilde’s books in his house because, he said, they were “accursed”.
Dorian Gray, as described in Wilde’s novel, resembled Lord Alfred Douglas in appearance and mannerisms, yet Wilde hadn’t yet met Bosie at the time of writing. Douglas later recalled having read the book many times before his first encounter with Wilde, suggesting it had placed a “glamour” upon him, drawing the two together for good or ill.
Lord Alfred was already living under the shadow of a family curse; Wilde described his ancestors as “a mad, bad line”. The curse dated back to the 14th century, when “Black Douglas” attempted to transport his friend Robert the Bruce’s heart to the Holy Land, but was ambushed and killed en route.
Three centuries on, the violently insane third Marquess of Queensbury, aged 10, murdered a cook by roasting him on a spit. He was caught in the act before he could consume his victim, but was henceforth known as “The Cannibalistic Idiot”.
John Douglas, the seventh Marquess (Bosie’s grandfather) died in a curious hunting incident in 1858, officially due to an accidental gun discharge. However,rumours of suicide were rife. Seven years later, his 18-year-old son Francis died in a mountaineering accident. Another son, James, committed suicide in 1891 by slitting his own throat with a razor. Other untimely deaths among the Douglas male line are recorded, most recently in 2009. Bosie’s father John Sholto Douglas, the ninth Marquess of Queensberry, is renowned as the founder of modern boxing, and for his outspoken atheism, violent temper and obsessive, relentless pursuit of Wilde, leading to the latter’s imprisonment and ruin. He evidently held Wilde responsible for leading his son astray.
Aleister Crowley adopted the opposite position, regarding Wilde as the victim. His hostility towards Bosie, expressed in verse and worse, may have been an attempt to instigate a court-room battle; the Beast being no stranger to litigation. Douglas failed to respond, despite Crowley issuing increasingly offensive pamphlets and essays unsuccessfully seeking to provoke their target. “Bosie”, read one, absurdly, “is a common prostitute, blackmailer, sodomite.” One wonders what had attracted Crowley’s ire? Was it, as Antonia suggests, Douglas’s conversion to Roman Catholicism? Or envy of Douglas’s superior poetry?
The doomed poet Lionel Johnson introduced his Winchester College friend (and perhaps more than friend?) Lord Alfred to Wilde in 1891, and thus commenced their fateful destiny; although as Wilde later wrote to Douglas: “I discern in all our relations not Destiny but Doom.” Johnson’s “melancholy verses wreathed by an eerie foreboding” appear to have predicted his early death aged 35. Ill health, including bouts of spinal paralysis, were worsened by a diet of tea, cigarettes and alcohol – especially the latter. Absinthe was a particular favourite.
His austere rooms at 8 New Square, Lincoln’s Inn Fields had long been associated with a malevolent entity occasionally glimpsed as “a large shadow winged creature with fearsome claws” (see FT353:30-33). Johnson confided to a friend that all was not well in his chambers, where “things happened”. His landlord had failed to point out that tenants taking these rooms invariably died within two years. Johnson’s trilogy of “infernal hymns”, Vinum Daemonum, Satanas and Dark Angel may not have helped matters. His spectre is said to haunt the area still.
Dancing with Salomé includes a good deal more in the way of uncanny happenings and anecdotes, and is enhanced by evocative photo portraits of its protagonists. A decadent delight, by virtue of its prose as well as its subject matter.
★ ★ ★ ★ ★