Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas
Imagine (and this will take some doing) that in the coming decades, Monica Lewinsky matures into a serious literary novelist, earning critical acclaim for the beauty of her language. In 2100, would she be remembered for her books, or for her part in a notorious sex scandal?
I think we all know the answer to that one. Which is why Douglas Murray, a 20-year-old Oxford University student who started his biographical research at 14, has done Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas such a signal service. This biography is a serious study of a poet whom critics at one time ranked with Shakespeare, no less, as a sonneteer, but who is recalled today as the gorgeous, petulant young peer whose affair with Oscar Wilde led to the great playwright's imprisonment in 1895.
Yes, Murray does retell the story--told so often before--of the events that caused Wilde to sue Douglas's father, the half-mad, vindictive Marquess of Queensbury, for libeling Wilde as a sodomite in 1895, only to see the Marquess acquitted and himself sentenced to two years hard labor for violating England's prohibition against homosexual acts. But Murray is far more interested in redeeming Douglas' reputation as a poet and editor, even as he straightforwardly confronts the unpleasant aspects of his subject's character.
Lord Alfred Douglas, who carried the nickname Bosie from childhood until this death in 1945, could be a thoroughly unpleasant person, feuding and pursuing endless courses of litigation throughout his middle years, only to land in prison himself for publishing the deranged and utterly libelous claim that Winston Churchill, in collusion with rich Jews, had planned the death of the British military hero Lord Kitchener.
His years in prison harmed Douglas' health and caused him to rapidly lose his beauty. Indeed, people meeting him for the first time in later years thought it impossible that he had once been considered the best-looking man in England. But prison also gentled Douglas' nature, Murray claims, making him grow more content in the Catholicism he embraced and softening his hysterical homophobia. (That's right--homophobia. Douglas married a woman with strong Sapphic tendencies and fathered a son, who unfortunately grew to be a paranoid schizophrenic. Bosie seems to have had no physical relationship with men for the last 45 years of his life.)
As Douglas grew progressively less comely, his nature became even sweeter, until the ultra-conservative Catholic Tory was carrying on a sparkling, long-term correspondence with leftist, atheist George Bernard Shaw, who addressed him as "Childe Alfred." Biographer Murray reveals Douglas' progress as sort of like Dorian Gray in reverse, with him becoming less emotionally corrupt, even as his face sagged and blurred.
There was never any corruption in his poetry, which best reveals the mental violence of Douglas' youth, as well as his poetic striving, in the final sonnet of the sequence he called "The City of the Soul," whose last lines proclaim Bosie's ambition:"To clutch Life's hair, and thrust one naked phrase/ Like a lean knife between the ribs of Time."