Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 10

The First Meeting with Lord Alfred Douglas

Thou hast led me like an heathen sacrifice,

With music and with fatal pomp of flowers,

To my eternal ruin.

Webster’s The White Devil.

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” was a success in every sense of the word, and during its run London was at Oscar’s feet. There were always a few doors closed to him; but he could afford now to treat his critics with laughter, call them fogies and old-fashioned and explain that they had not a decalogue but a millelogue of sins forbidden and persons tabooed because it was easier to condemn than to understand.

I remember a lunch once when he talked most brilliantly and finished up by telling the story now published in his works as “A Florentine Tragedy.” He told it superbly, making it appear far more effective than in its written form. A well-known actor, piqued at being compelled to play listener, made himself ridiculous by half turning his back on the narrator. But after lunch Willie Grenfell (now Lord Desborough), a model English athlete gifted with peculiar intellectual fairness, came round to me:

“Oscar Wilde is most surprising, most charming, a wonderful talker.”

At the same moment Mr. K. H—— came over to us. He was a man who went everywhere and knew everyone. He had quiet, ingratiating manners, always spoke in a gentle smiling way and had a good word to say for everyone, especially for women; he was a bachelor, too, and wholly unattached. He surprised me by taking up Grenfell’s praise and breaking into a lyric:

“The best talker who ever lived,” he said; “most extraordinary. I am so infinitely obliged to you for asking me to meet him — a new delight. He brings a supernal air into life. I am in truth indebted to you”— all this in an affected purring tone. I noticed for the first time that there was a touch of rouge on his face; Grenfell turned away from us rather abruptly I thought.

At this first roseate dawn of complete success and universal applause, new qualities came to view in Oscar. Praise gave him the fillip needed in order to make him surpass himself. His talk took on a sort of autumnal richness of colour, and assumed a new width of range; he now used pathos as well as humour and generally brought in a story or apologue to lend variety to the entertainment. His little weaknesses, too, began to show themselves and they grew rankly in the sunshine. He always wanted to do himself well, as the phrase goes, but now he began to eat and drink more freely than before. His vanity became defiant. I noticed one day that he had signed himself, Oscar O’Flahertie Wilde, I think under some verses which he had contributed years before to his College magazine. I asked him jokingly what the O’Flahertie stood for. To my astonishment he answered me gravely:

“The O’Flaherties were kings in Ireland, and I have a right to the name; I am descended from them.”

I could not help it; I burst out laughing.

“What are you laughing at, Frank?” he asked with a touch of annoyance.

“It seems humorous to me,” I explained, “that Oscar Wilde should want to be an O’Flahertie,” and as I spoke a picture of the greatest of the O’Flaherties, with bushy head and dirty rags, warming enormous hairy legs before a smoking peat-fire, flashed before me. I think something of the sort must have occurred to Oscar, too, for, in spite of his attempt to be grave, he could not help laughing.

“It’s unkind of you, Frank,” he said. “The Irish were civilised and Christians when the English kept themselves warm with tattooings.”

He could not help telling one in familiar talk of Clumber or some other great house where he had been visiting; he was intoxicated with his own popularity, a little surprised, perhaps, to find that he had won fame so easily and on the primrose path, but one could forgive him everything, for he talked more delightfully than ever.

It is almost inexplicable, but nevertheless true that life tries all of us, tests every weak point to breaking, and sets off and exaggerates our powers. Burns saw this when he wrote:

“Wha does the utmost that he can

Will whyles do mair.”

And the obverse is true: whoever yields to a weakness habitually, some day goes further than he ever intended, and comes to worse grief than he deserved. The old prayer: Lead us not into temptation, is perhaps a half-conscious recognition of this fact. But we moderns are inclined to walk heedlessly, no longer believing in pitfalls or in the danger of gratified desires. And Oscar Wilde was not only an unbeliever; but he had all the heedless confidence of the artist who has won world-wide popularity and has the halo of fame on his brow. With high heart and smiling eyes he went to his fate unsuspecting.

It was in the autumn of 1891 that he first met Lord Alfred Douglas. He was thirty-six and Lord Alfred Douglas a handsome, slim youth of twenty-one, with large blue eyes and golden-fair hair. His mother, the Dowager Lady Queensberry, preserves a photograph of him taken a few years before, when he was still at Winchester, a boy of sixteen with an expression which might well be called angelic.

When I met him, he was still girlishly pretty, with the beauty of youth, coloring and fair skin; though his features were merely ordinary. It was Lionel Johnson, the writer, a friend and intimate of Douglas at Winchester, who brought him to tea at Oscar’s house in Tite Street. Their mutual attraction had countless hooks. Oscar was drawn by the lad’s personal beauty, and enormously affected besides by Lord Alfred Douglas’ name and position: he was a snob as only an English artist can be a snob; he loved titular distinctions, and Douglas is one of the few great names in British history with the gilding of romance about it. No doubt Oscar talked better than his best because he was talking to Lord Alfred Douglas. To the last the mere name rolled on his tongue gave him extraordinary pleasure. Besides, the boy admired him, hung upon his lips with his soul in his eyes; showed, too, rare intelligence in his appreciation, confessed that he himself wrote verses and loved letters passionately. Could more be desired than perfection perfected?

And Alfred Douglas on his side was almost as powerfully attracted; he had inherited from his mother all her literary tastes — and more: he was already a master-poet with a singing faculty worthy to be compared with the greatest. What wonder if he took this magical talker, with the luminous eyes and charming voice, and a range and play of thought beyond his imagining, for a world’s miracle, one of the Immortals. Before he had listened long, I have been told, the youth declared his admiration passionately. They were an extraordinary pair and were complementary in a hundred ways, not only in mind, but in character. Oscar had reached originality of thought and possessed the culture of scholarship, while Alfred Douglas had youth and rank and beauty, besides being as articulate as a woman with an unsurpassable gift of expression. Curiously enough, Oscar was as yielding and amiable in character as the boy was self-willed, reckless, obstinate and imperious.

Years later Oscar told me that from the first he dreaded Alfred Douglas’ aristocratic, insolent boldness:

“He frightened me, Frank, as much as he attracted me, and I held away from him. But he wouldn’t have it; he sought me out again and again and I couldn’t resist him. That is my only fault. That’s what ruined me. He increased my expenses so that I could not meet them; over and over again I tried to free myself from him; but he came back and I yielded — alas!”

Though this is Oscar’s later gloss on what actually happened, it is fairly accurate. He was never able to realise how his meeting with Lord Alfred Douglas had changed the world to him and him to the world. The effect on the harder fibre of the boy was chiefly mental: to Alfred Douglas, Oscar was merely a quickening, inspiring, intellectual influence; but the boy’s effect on Oscar was of character and induced imitation. Lord Alfred Douglas’ boldness gave Oscar outrecuidance, an insolent arrogance: artist-like he tried to outdo his model in aristocratic disdain. Without knowing the cause the change in Oscar astonished me again and again, and in the course of this narrative I shall have to notice many instances of it.

One other effect the friendship had of far-reaching influence. Oscar always enjoyed good living; but for years he had had to earn his bread: he knew the value of money; he didn’t like to throw it away; he was accustomed to lunch or dine at a cheap Italian restaurant for a few shillings. But to Lord Alfred Douglas money was only a counter and the most luxurious living a necessity. As soon as Oscar Wilde began to entertain him, he was led to the dearest hotels and restaurants; his expenses became formidable and soon outran his large earnings. For the first time since I had known him he borrowed heedlessly right and left, and had, therefore, to bring forth play after play with scant time for thought.

Lord Alfred Douglas has declared recently:

“I spent much more in entertaining Oscar Wilde than he did in entertaining me”; but this is preposterous self-deception. An earlier confession of his was much nearer the truth: “It was a sweet humiliation to me to let Oscar Wilde pay for everything and to ask him for money.”

There can be no doubt that Lord Alfred Douglas’ habitual extravagance kept Oscar Wilde hard up, and drove him to write without intermission.

There were other and worse results of the intimacy which need not be exposed here in so many words, though they must be indicated; for they derived of necessity from that increased self-assurance which has already been recorded. As Oscar devoted himself to Lord Alfred Douglas and went about with him continually, he came to know his friends and his familiars, and went less into society so-called. Again and again Lord Alfred Douglas flaunted acquaintance with youths of the lowest class; but no one knew him or paid much attention to him; Oscar Wilde, on the other hand, was already a famous personage whose every movement provoked comment. From this time on the rumours about Oscar took definite form and shaped themselves in specific accusations: his enemies began triumphantly to predict his ruin and disgrace.

Everything is known in London society; like water on sand the truth spreads wider and wider as it gradually filters lower. The “smart set” in London has almost as keen a love of scandal as a cathedral town. About this time one heard of a dinner which Oscar Wilde had given at a restaurant in Soho, which was said to have degenerated into a sort of Roman orgy. I was told of a man who tried to get money by blackmailing him in his own house. I shrugged my shoulders at all these scandals, and asked the talebearers what had been said about Shakespeare to make him rave as he raved again and again against “back-wounding calumny”; and when they persisted in their malicious stories I could do nothing but show disbelief. Though I saw but little of Oscar during the first year or so of his intimacy with Lord Alfred Douglas, one scene from this time filled me with suspicion and an undefined dread.

I was in a corner of the Café Royal one night downstairs, playing chess, and, while waiting for my opponent to move, I went out just to stretch my legs. When I returned I found Oscar throned in the very corner, between two youths. Even to my short-sighted eyes they appeared quite common: in fact they looked like grooms. In spite of their vulgar appearance, however, one was nice looking in a fresh boyish way; the other seemed merely depraved. Oscar greeted me as usual, though he seemed slightly embarrassed. I resumed my seat, which was almost opposite him, and pretended to be absorbed in the game. To my astonishment he was talking as well as if he had had a picked audience; talking, if you please, about the Olympic games, telling how the youths wrestled and were scraped with strigulæ and threw the discus and ran races and won the myrtle-wreath. His impassioned eloquence brought the sun-bathed palæstra before one with a magic of representment. Suddenly the younger of the boys asked:

“Did you sy they was niked?”

“Of course,” Oscar replied, “nude, clothed only in sunshine and beauty.”

“Oh, my,” giggled the lad in his unspeakable Cockney way. I could not stand it.

“I am in an impossible position,” I said to my opponent, who was the amateur chess player, Montagu Gattie. “Come along and let us have some dinner.” With a nod to Oscar I left the place. On the way out Gattie said to me:

“So that’s the famous Oscar Wilde.”

“Yes,” I replied, “that’s Oscar, but I never saw him in such company before.”

“Didn’t you?” remarked Gattie quietly; “he was well known at Oxford. I was at the ‘Varsity with him. His reputation was always rather —‘high,’ shall we call it?”

I wanted to forget the scene and blot it out of my memory, and remember my friend as I knew him at his best. But that Cockney boy would not be banned; he leered there with rosy cheeks, hair plastered down in a love-lock on his forehead, and low cunning eyes. I felt uncomfortable. I would not think of it. I recalled the fact that in all our talks I had never heard Oscar use a gross word. His mind, I said to myself, is like Spenser’s, vowed away from coarseness and vulgarity: he’s the most perfect intellectual companion in the world. He may have wanted to talk to the boys just to see what effect his talk would have on them. His vanity is greedy enough to desire even such applause as theirs. . . . Of course, that was the explanation — vanity. My affection for him, tormented by doubt, had found at length a satisfactory solution. It was the artist in him, I said to myself, that wanted a model.

But why not boys of his own class? The answer suggested itself; boys of his own class could teach him nothing; his own boyhood would supply him with all the necessary information about well-bred youth. But if he wanted a gutter-snipe in one of his plays, he would have to find a gutter-lad and paint him from life. That was probably the truth, I concluded. So satisfied was I with my discovery that I developed it to Gattie; but he would not hear of it.

“Gattie has nothing of the artist in him,” I decided, “and therefore cannot understand.” And I went on arguing, if Gattie were right, why two boys? It seemed evident to me that my reading of the riddle was the only plausible one. Besides it left my affection unaffected and free. Still, the giggle, the plastered oily hair and the venal leering eyes came back to me again and again in spite of myself.

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Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30