BOOK REVIEW - BOSIE - A BIOGRAPHY OF LORD ALFRED DOUGLAS by Douglas Murray, 2000 Hodder & Stoughton Press. ISBN 0340 76770 7 reviewed by Arthur Chappell.
A magnificent reappraisal of the life and times of Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas, a fine poet in his own right, who was sadly doomed to be remembered more for his involvement with Oscar Wilde, and indeed as Wilde's unwitting nemesis in the infamous 1885 sodomy libel case that destroyed the better known poet. Bosie was the son of the brutal, mysoginistic, wife beating, semi-literate, rabidly homophobic alcoholic thug, Marquis of Queensbury, who laughably gave his name to the Queensbury Rules and Queensbury Belt that turned boxing into a 'Gentlemen's sport'.
Bosie had fallen out with his father, in particular over Queensbury's treatment of Bosie's Mother, and Queensbury was hell-bent on causing his son's ruin, financially and socially. Bosie and Wilde both had indulged in a number of gay affairs before they met, but their affair with one another was to prove their undoing. They flaunted their affections all too publicly, and often alluded to it in their verse. Rumours were rife, and Queensbury set out to make the fact of their relationship known, which as Homosexual acts had been ruled illegal in 1875, proved potentially lethal. Queensbury accused Wilde of Sodomy and Wilde recklessly issued a counter-challenge on grounds of libel. It seems evident that Queensbury was really interested in getting at his own son, but Bosie, under considerable duress from Wilde and other friends, was talked into leaving the country for France. Wilde too could have fled but chose to stand trial, which of course, he lost. One of the most damming pieces of evidence against him being Bosie's beautiful sonnet Two Loves and its line, "I am the love that dare not speak its name." Interpreted as a clear reference to the homosexual passion shared by Bosie and Wilde, though Wilde was to face also a succession of witnesses from among London's rent Boy community. Queensbury had used private detectives to gain details of many or Wilde's affairs and indiscretions, instead of focusing squarely on the Wilde-Bosie affair.
Bosie stood by Wilde as best he could by post and in person when Wilde took exile in France for the last five years of his short life. It was actually in the years after Wilde died (1900) that Bosie's own world really began to fall apart.
Bosie became alienated by Wilde's literary friends who, eager to reinstate Wilde to literary glory, downplayed Bosie's part in the story or villainized him,. This resulted in a series of fierce legal battles between the various members of the Wilde circle, who sued and counter sued each other for the first quarter of the 20th century. Bosie, after a few unexpected successes in this battle, seemed to take it on himself to engage in more and more such battles, most of which he was to lose, to great financial cost.
Though he doesn't comment on it as such, Murray pictures a literary scene of men eager to score points of one another with extraordinary bile and bitchiness and back-stabbing, and Bosie was becoming just as bad at this as any. One letter to an opponent reading from the outset, "You dammed Irish pig-Doctor."
The trend seemed to run to publishing scurrilous pamphlets and letters to and about their colleagues until someone went too far and the opponent took all due legal action, which was foolish For Bosie, with the shadow of the Wilde case hovering over him, as the courts would often hear that cited as a black mark against his character.
Bosie however had become a convert to the Catholic faith, coming to regard his gay history as a sin, albeit not as a crime, (he would later write a major article in defence of homosexuality) and he married a lesbian poet, Olive Custance, who would later separate from him for some time before reconciling with him and standing by him until her own death, though with them torn asunder by a bitter custody battle over their son, Raymond taking place in their years of conflict.
Financial hardships, loss of friends through his legal conflicts with the Wilde circle and other problems made Bosie bitter and angry at just about everyone. He was equally embittered when the full text of Wilde's De Profundis came to his attention, as Wilde had made some very cutting remarks about him there, which he could do nothing about with Wilde now dead.
Bosie was beginning to become increasingly idiosyncratic, paranoid and inclined to believe every crackpot conspiracy theory going. He was impressed by the forged and hateful Protocols Of Zion documents that had criticized a Jewish conspiracy in political and business circles, (a document that the Nazis were to make some use of for propaganda purposes in later years) and Douglas began writing his own anti-Jewish propaganda, losing himself even more friends and admirers. He then went to his greatest extreme of irrational hatred, and issued a sensational pamphlet accusing Winston Churchill of personally masterminding the assassination of Lord Kitchener (in actuality killed when the ship he was on, The Hampshire, was sunk by a German WW1 U Boat. Churchill sued and Bosie went to serve his own term in Reading Gaol (Where Wilde had been) for Criminal Libel.
In his later years, Bosie seemed to recover his senses, writing sincere letters of apology to the many he had sued or tried to sue, including Churchill. Though bankrupt, he found many new admirers, including Donald Sinden, John Betjemen, and more unlikely, George Bernard Shaw (an atheist) and Marie Stopes, the campaigner for contraception who loved Bosie despite the Catholic beliefs he held being so contrary to their own convictions.
The story of a man broken and embittered by rivalry and bigotry to becoming dangerously bigoted in his own views only to reform again and rediscover himself is beautifully put and there is no doubt as to the power and beauty of Bosie's own verse, often in sonnets described by some as the best since Shakespeare's day. (Bosie was a fierce critic of the modernist free verse trend set by T.S. Eliot for its lack of formal poetic construction and use to depict ugliness instead of beauty and love.)
A well crafted meticulously researched affectionate book, in which the author gained even access to records withheld for decades by the Home Office (relating to The Churchill case) nicely illustrated and one of the finest literary biographies available.
It is not stated whether Bosie recanted his anti-Semitic convictions in light of news coming through of the nazi-holocaust of the Jews by the close of WW2 (Bosie died about four months before VE Day, but there is little doubt that he was man of great spirit and conviction, destroyed in part by his stubbornness in his principles and also by the intolerance of the legal system and his appalling father, but Bosie left a legacy of poetry that reminds the world that love, whether its speaks its name or not, matters a great deal.
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